Respect for Humanity: To Be Lean or Not to Be, That Is the Question

The following article was written for Gemba Academy by Mohamed Saleh, PhD

Many of us grew up admiring figures like Gandhi, King Arthur, Michael Jordan, figures of faith, and our own parents for how they inspired us. They gathered followers for their integrity, intellect, courage, vision, and inspirational leadership qualities. Yet, it begs the question. Are those behaviors what distinguished them, and is that what makes for a great leader? The good news is that, wherever you fit as a leader, your ability to distinguish yourself resets daily, and thus you have a pivotal decision to make each morning. How will you lead your day?

As I peeled back the onion and explored this topic further, I realized that these leaders possessed a series of mindset principles. My own father, Atef Saleh, demonstrated a number of these principles as I was growing up. Seeing it in action only illustrated to me how leadership, psychological ownership, and respect for humanity truly play a role in shaping how one perceives the leaders in their lives and their role models.

Caught in the act of humility

I was born in Egypt and moved to the United States at the age of 6. I attended elementary and middle school and then went back to Egypt at the age of 14 to attend high school. My parents insisted on this move to instill certain values and beliefs.

One Friday when I was 17 years old, my dad called me from my room to attend prayer with him and my brother. On the way to the mosque, my brother and I encountered a few of our friends. We exchanged hellos and told them that we would catch up with them afterwards. We attended prayer and then my dad excused himself to use the bathroom. After 20 minutes of waiting, both my brother and I grew impatient and concerned. Our normal routine was to walk back home with my dad discussing what we learned from the prayer. We would then go out with friends — either to an arcade or to play ball — until dinner time. Since we didn’t own phones at the time, we could not text anyone and grew worried that our plans would be delayed. Therefore, I went to the bathroom to see what was taking my dad so long.

How did a father mold a leader?

To my surprise, I found my dad cleaning the stalls. I froze at the sight and did not understand why he was doing that. Speechless, my dad turned, smiled, and continued. No shame, no words! I went back to my brother, and when he asked where Dad was, I told him he was cleaning the stalls. He gave me a similarly perplexed look. We waited another 10 minutes, and my dad finally walked out.  Without talking about it, we started to head home. On the way home, he asked, “What did you learn from today’s speech?”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t recall. I kept picturing my dad cleaning the stall. Eventually, I asked, “Why were you cleaning the stalls?”

He looked at me and said, “Because I still have my health. You see son, it’s a privilege to serve. To lead is to serve. Give when no one is looking and have no pride in doing the little things that need to be done. Be selfless and serve humanity.”

Seeing and doing the little things

In the book Legacy, James Kerr highlights the significance of this leadership mindset in his chapter called “Clean the Sheds.” Similarly, I recently attended a keynote speech by General Arthur Collins at the Association of Manufacturing Excellence Conference. As I sat there hearing him tell his story about the importance of sweeping the shed, a similar lesson in humility to my father’s, he said, “Never be too big to do the little things that need to be done.”

I shared my father’s leadership lesson in humility and respect for humanity with Sensei Thurlow-san. I added how it served as a reminder over the years and the impact it had on shaping my perspective on leadership. Sensei Thurlow-san, showing admiration to my father’s story, shared that his bosses, Nakashima-san at Toyota, used to clean the guest bathrooms daily as well as the main meeting room, as that is where they met customers. He explained that Nakashima-san told him that he couldn’t code, but he could clean. That is real leadership. The fact that no one else (non-Japanese) in executive management did this, nor did anyone else after they left (other than the cleaning staff), speaks volumes. It’s a mindset.

How can something like stalls or dirty gloves improve your business?

As leaders, we often walk the floors, scrutinizing and nitpicking. Our intentions, for the most part, are pure and harmless; however our actions have not earned us trust. We believe that our presence is what makes it significant. We ask how things are going sporadically from our employees and expect trust and truth, yet we have not earned it. My Sensei Stec-san would often quote Ohno-san and would ask me, “How dirty are your gloves, or how many times did you wash your hands?”

Let someone catch you cleaning the stall

This is a metaphor for the fact that there is no substitute for direct observation. Your job is to fix the environment and not the people. Make it safe and joyous.

In my different previous capacities, I would get up early, make and serve coffee for everyone in the office, deliver mail, clean rooms during the day, stock paper, and more. And the higher I rose as an executive leader, the more I had to do. I would clean the rooms after a meeting, erase the white boards, and help new employees with setting up their desks.

It all started with a wise man cleaning the stalls! Find the little things that need to be done, serve your people, and the higher up you are, the more stall examples you need to find! Who knows, someone might catch you in the act of humility, and it may spread.

Reflection:

  • Leadership is a process: Find your stalls, commit to the little things, ensure you go home with dirty gloves, reset, repeat.
  • Be intentional: This behavior requires a system and cannot be done ad hoc. You can build it in your leadership standard work or current systems that exist. Trust requires discipline and reflection.
  • Mindset first: Design your system with a mindset of respecting humanity, team over self, no substitute for direct observation fostered in an environment of psychological safety and ownership.
  • Anchor your values: Be a beacon for integrity. Take responsibility for your actions, putting others’ needs before yours and serve when no one is watching.

2 Comments

  1. Jonathan Wiederecht

    June 17, 2020 - 9:07 am
    Reply

    Inspirational reading. Thank you for this gift, reminding us to be humble, as well as to practice humility.

  2. James La Trobe-Bateman

    June 19, 2020 - 2:32 am
    Reply

    Am so pleased to see this topic discussed in the place. When you are a change agent, it is easy to think the problems are ‘out there’. You point out that the solutions start ‘inside’. Thank you for the thoughts.

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