On Leadership and Doing Dishes

Do you remember your first journey into a role where you were not the leader in the beginning of the voyage, but by the end you were in charge? I certainly do. I have actually had many of these throughout my life. The first big one I recall started when I was about 9-years old and ended in my early teens. This journey helped me carve an understanding of leadership and how it was different from management when it comes to getting things done through teams of people. Background

Growing up the middle of 9 children, I saw a unique perspective of the world that many people don't get. I have three sisters and one brother older than me and three sisters and one brother younger than me. My dad used his brief time in the military in Korea to learn how to run a tight ship with a bunch of people. My mom also put forth a lot of efforts in teaching all of her kids how to work hard.

We had daily and weekly chores to keep the place reasonably tidy. Laundry was a daily monstrosity as was any family meal. The laundry machine worked and so did the clothes dryer and clothes line outside, but for many years the dish washer didn't work. Our chore load was quite big when it came to cleaning up after dinner. With eleven people in one house and a dish washing machine that didn't work for many years, I had my share of family-chore-overload in the kitchen as a young kid.

To help you imagine what an average Tuesday night looked like at dinner in terms of size, scope, and effort, think of a Thanksgiving feast for a family of four. If you wonder what Thanksgiving looked like in comparison at my house, think of a small restaurant or cafeteria. Except our dish washing machine didn't work and we did them "old-school."

Now with many hands, light work can be made of huge tasks. Of course, that only works with organization, planning, and motivation. Imagine having 9 full bellies getting motivated to do the dishes after a big meal. It was never easy. Now imagine many of those bellies where teenager and younger who had to self-organize and complete the task of cleaning that mess. When I was about 9 years old, I saw fighting, disarray, and complaining as a daily occurrence. It was nightmarish.

I grew to hate and resent doing the dishes. It just didn't seem fair that the dishwasher wouldn't get repaired. I began to think of ways to get out of doing this dreadful task, but nothing worked. So in my misery, I began to take my inquisitive and inventive nature and put my mind to streamlining processes simply to make the chore go by quicker. I began to study motion patterns of my siblings doing the chores. I analysed behaviors, temperaments, and inclinations of the people involved in working together. I began to experiment with organizing tasks by breaking them down to their simplest elements and deciding who might be the best person to carry out each component.

I would even arrange upbeat music as we all danced together in the kitchen "doing chores." They loved me!

What I found is that I could fulfill my greatest desire of not actually doing the dishes (either washing, rinsing, drying, putting away, cleaning counters, sweeping the floor, wiping the table, etc) by simply equipping others to do simple tasks that distracted them from my evil plan of not actually doing the work. By the age of 11 or 12 I was the master at keeping things running smoothly and getting the "project" done with ever greater efficiency. I was laughing inside because I thought that I wasn't doing the dishes!!

It Gets Better

During this time period, the ages of all the participants changed and I witnessed many dynamics over the years as they entered into the fray. I got to the point in my craft where I would have friends of siblings feeling privileged to join us in this "fun" activity when they would happen to come to our house during dishes time.

I became the ultimate Tom Sawyer! I had everybody feeling great about doing the dishes (for me.)

What started as an entry-level position for me turned into a leadership role over time. My older brothers and sisters who would typically not listen to a younger brother would do what I asked of them because I had enough evidence that my suggestion would probably pay off in efficiency. I became the leader and no one ever noticed (Hehe!!!)

Many years later it actually occurred to me that I actually WAS doing the dishes, in a way. I was just as busy as any of the other "worker bees" who had a towel in their hand, but I was using my creative problem-solving skills and my motivational/inspirational approach instead of my dish pan hands to help achieve the objective. I was working as a leader.

When I was 14 years old I got my first job washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant. I loved it and we had a blast. I parlayed that into another dish washing job at a BBQ place that eventually allowed me to move up to busboy, then to cook by age 16.

In each of these jobs and in every one since, I have used the same skills of

  • Observation
  • Calculation
  • Experimentation
  • Implementation
  • Motivation
  • Exploration
to get increasingly better performance where ever I went. To get my first leadership success in place, I personally needed the motivation, vision, and focus that was provided by my discomfort of the status quo: my hatred for doing dishes. As I look back at any other success that I have had in leading teams to accomplish great things, I had to bring that same desire and determination to get to a new place before I could get anyone else to follow. The focus on accomplishing a true and worthwhile goal that utilized people and resources effectively is what keeps followers following. Even doing the dishes.

Do you remember your first big experience with successful leadership? How did you do it? How did you replicate that experience later in your life? How are you keeping that fire in your belly to "get out of doing dishes" and translating that to positive leadership for others? I'd love to hear your stories!


Author, Speaker, and Executive Trainer Tom Schulte is CEO and CRO (Chief Recalibration Officer) of Recalibrate Professional Development in Atlanta, GA where he fine-tunes professionals for better leadership performance through his interactive values-card sorting experience. With years of leadership development training Fortune 500 leader's with customized programs, he has narrowed his training down to the nuggets t...

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