How to be a leader? Be humble.

When I was a kid, I thought being the boss meant you had lackeys to do everything for you. The big shots get secretaries who could hold their calls and minions to pick up their dry cleaning. Yeah, I got most of that from TV.

The reality is that being “the boss” is not all I thought it would be. I’m not a kid anymore and unfortunately I have this whole philosophy around leadership versus management and how those of us in the corporate world have to fulfill both roles all the time.

Management, by the way, is easy. Especially if you are not hung up on caring about other people it can be the easiest job in the world. That’s a future confessions post.

Leadership, on the other hand, is hard. Management is about telling and leadership is about doing. Leaders can’t do all the jobs and to be effective they shouldn’t even try. However, leaders should be about action.

Let me back up. I have held some menial jobs. When I was younger I thought the whole point of those jobs was a stepping stone and that I would not be doing those jobs forever. As it turns out, in order for my team to be successful though, someone has to do menial jobs. I’ve bussed tables, bagged groceries, directed traffic, cleaned bathrooms, worked in kitchens, unloaded trucks, and worked all kinds of retail.

As a manager I have been a delivery guy, a taxi driver, clean-up crew, set-up crew, network support, cook, moving crew, errand boy, and general gopher.

Yes, there are days I wish we had regular interns.

I don’t do these jobs to show I am still just a regular guy or some nonsense. I’m the boss, no one will ever see me as just a regular guy and it’s silly to try. I do those jobs when called for because it helps my team. If my job is making sure my team stays productive, then someone has to do the occassional work that comes up that is unproductive. That means if we need a test area someone has to gather up network cables, routers, and spare monitors and hook everything up. I can do it or I can have someone who has actual task to put off their work to do it. When I was on site with one of our business units, I rented a car that came out of my budget and drove my employees back and forth between the work site and the hotel because the project they were on was trying to save money. I was on site for business meetings, so in between meetings I provided taxi service. I also picked up and dropped off at the airport so the project team could keep working and planned my meetings around those activities. It wasn’t easy for me but the project team stayed in motion and I met with all of the business partners.

What I encounter all too often though is that managers, middle managers, and executives often take the stance that either their time is too valuable for menial activities or they are too important to do them.


Maybe I just remember all too well being a line employee. Maybe it’s because I remember some of the best leaders were people who rolled up their shirt sleeves and got their hands dirty. Maybe it’s because I realize that some tasks have to be done even when no one really wants to do them or it’s not really anybody’s responsibility.

This doesn’t mean you should never delegate. You absolutely should delegate. Sometimes you’ll need to delegate the menial jobs even. What I am saying is that your employees will see you as a leader if you lead by doing. Even if it is the little things.

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Posted in Advice, Career Management, Managing Employees
2 comments on “How to be a leader? Be humble.
  1. Thanks for a great post Rob. I think humility is a highly underrated leadership skill, so it’s great to see someone writing about it. Jim Collins’ research into the two components of great leadership (humility and professional will) is also helpful on this topic.

    I’m challenged by what you say about getting your hands dirty and doing the menial work… as you say, one definitely needs to keep the art of delegation (so important for productivity and growth) but then on the other hand some leaders can just be downright lazy or unwilling to do unglamorous tasks.

    Keep bringing the wisdom, I’m enjoying this blog!

    • Rob Aught says:

      Isn’t Jim Collins the one who talked about servant leadership? Not sure if it was him or someone else, but I do tend to think that leaders serve their people rather than the other way around.

      I appreciate the feedback. I have to admit that I don’t always do the menial jobs willingly. I try not to complain because leaders don’t get to complain but there have been times when I’m lying on thinly carpeted floor in a dress shirt and slacks trying to figure out where they hid the network jack at a new hire’s desk that I can’t help but think “This is not at all what I thought I’d be doing at this point in my career”

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