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A 60 Second Leader Tale: Covey on Turning Janitors into leader

Stephen Covey is talking at Leaders in London later this year, and so I dug out these notes I made last time I heard him speak. I like this story as it challenges what most people mean when they say the words ‘leader’ or ‘leadership’…

“A manager asked me how to get a team of janitors working in a way where they took responsibility instead of ducking it. I asked who managed the supplies, cleaning schedules, keeping within budget and so on.

He managed all of that. So, my advice was to cede it all step-by-step to the janitors. Let them set the schedules. Show them how to do the budgeting. The principle at work here is: ‘Lead people, manage things.’

He felt this was not possible with manual labour. But, much of what we have to do today is turning manual workers into knowledge workers.*

The janitors now do the planning and doing. The supervisor serves them. He has become a ‘servant leader’. Costs are down, incidentally…”

Source: My notes from a talk given by Stephen Covey. Before you can lead others you need to be able to take charge of and lead yourself. Frontline leadership, where there is no direct supervision of others in a hierarchy, often consists of this initiative-taking self-leadership, and leading peers by example.

*The phrase ‘knowledge worker’ is commonly taken to mean what white-collar workers have to evolve into. That’s wrong. Manual workers are becoming knowledge workers, too.

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