What is leadership?

Joel Spolsky gives an example:

Anyway, on my first day of work for the sergeant major, I didn’t know what to expect. I was sure it was going to be horrible, a suspicion that seemed to be confirmed when he took me to the officers’ bathroom and told me I would be responsible for keeping it clean. And then he said something I didn’t anticipate.

“Here’s how you clean a toilet,” he said.

And he got down on his knees in front of the porcelain bowl — in his pressed-starched-spotless dress uniform — and scrubbed it with his bare hands until it shined.

To a 19-year-old assigned to clean toilets, which is almost by definition the worst possible job in the world, the sight of this high-ranking, 38-year-old, manicured, pampered disciplinary officer cleaning a toilet was a shock. And it completely reset my attitude. If he can clean a toilet, I can clean a toilet, I thought. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning toilets. My loyalty and inspiration from that moment on were unflagging. Now that’s leadership.

Our company was built on the idea of hiring smart and productive people and then clearing the decks. The late, great minicomputer company Digital Equipment Corporation, better known as DEC, was so adamant about this idea that people in the company used the word administration in place of management and modeled its corporate hierarchy on that of a great research university.

The brains behind the university are the professors. They do the groundbreaking medical experiments on rhesus monkeys and gain insight into the psychology of man by closely observing the behavior of college sophomores. Obviously, these geniuses shouldn’t waste a moment of their valuable time on administrative tasks.

Thus, universities hire support staff to collect tuition payments and figure out who should get that great parking space near the duck pond. (At the very most, a good university might rotate the administrative tasks among the faculty, but ideally, it has a team of professionals to keep the trains running on time.) DEC behaved in much the same way.

And that’s my model, too. Not everybody gets it. Not long ago, we had a management trainee who sat around waiting for us to give him a formal title and promotion so he could “get stuff done.” Problem was, he had never managed to win enough respect or influence from the development team to actually do things. He didn’t work out so well; despite being smart and competent, he didn’t earn the leadership position he thought he deserved. He would have been better off thinking about new features we should develop, writing specs to outline the benefits of these features, and winning the developers’ trust through action instead of waiting for the title.

Another management trainee didn’t care what his title was: He came up with a new idea for a program and persuaded the team that it was a good idea. I think he’ll go far.

That’s the kind of leader I want to nurture at my company.

Take a look!

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