Humble Leadership

Thursday is garbage day where I live and it took the simple act of a garbage pick-up to restore my faith in honesty and leadership development here in America. As you may know, Wichita, Kansas, has the tendency to be windy. This can make garbage pick-up difficult (even with the automated trucks) as wind gusts blow garbage out of the trash receptacle and miss the truck.

Today happened to be one of those windy days. The trash hauler reached out with his automated hand and grabbed our can. But in the process of dumping it, sheets of paper fell out and began to blow down the street. From my hidden view, I could see the young man contemplate what to do next. I am sure there are efficiencies that are expected of trash haulers. The metrics most likely indicate that “so many” houses need to be hit every hour. This gentleman did not have the time to get out of his truck and retrieve the blowing debris. Yet at the same time, I could instantly see the pride of doing his job well flicker across his face.

In the end, job perfection won out. He quickly removed himself from his truck, grabbed the blowing paper and disposed of it without skipping a beat. I know that it seems simple, however this young man’s decision set a positive tone for my morning. He could have easily watched the paper blow throughout the neighborhood. With the winds around here, it would not have taken long for the evidence to blow out of sight. He made the right decision even though he did not know anybody was watching. In this moment, he was able to quickly provide some insight into his character and leadership ability, while representing the values of the organization and building its brand.

Many of today’s leaders should take notice of this worker’s decision to do the right thing. Lately both international leaders (President of the IMF) and national leaders (Governors of Virginia and Oregon) have been dealing with criminal issues. Journalist Bill O’Reilly of Fox News fought off questions regarding his honesty. This came on the heels of an NBC News anchor, Brian Williams, being dismissed for dishonest reporting. Unfortunately, the honesty question has not just affected news leaders. Recently, our Secretary of Defense was on the defensive answering questions regarding misstated service in the military.

For some reason, we have etched into our culture that leadership should lead to a life of entitlement. In some of these cases, these leaders are perceived to have it all, yet they take steps to grab more. For some, it is additional power, more money, or larger influence. For others, it is added fame, more limelight or increased significance. Yet Jesus makes clear in the Bible, “If you want to be a great leader, you need to be willing to be last” (Matthew 20:26 paraphrased). To be a leader means to take on increased responsibility; for oneself or others. It is not about getting more. In fact, the focus should be on putting others before you. These points seem to be missed in our development of new leaders.

What became abundantly clear to me today is that I do not need to rely upon the high profile or famous to set an example for how a leader should be. There are those in less popular positions that exude positive leadership traits. Luckily for me it came to me in the form of our local trash hauler.

Romney Ruder is World Impact's Senior Vice President and COO.