Servant leadership

Lunch and dinner are brought in every day at work. It is a wasteful affair in both cost and utility that, because of its quotidian nature, breeds laziness to a high order at the price of spontaneity and camaraderie that is often associated with eating meals.

Every week, a different group of three employees is assigned to clean up the lunch mess. It takes about thirty man-minutes to accomplish this. This week it happens to be me. Today the other two forgot so it was only me.

Thirty minutes of busy work is a long thinking time.

I spent some time thinking how much I hate cleaning up.

The irony here is that the idea of a cleanup schedule was mine transplanted from my last startup. I had disliked how the office assistant had to clean up after everyone so I suggested that we make a cleanup schedule.

So why was I disliking my own idea?

It was not because of the recalcitrant two. I’ll just ignore them on Thursday and Friday cleanup having done their job today.

Maybe it was partly because we’ve hired what I felt is too many interns. They won’t have any kitchen duty and their aggressive stomaches mean I almost never get to eat. Assigned cleanup of food I don’t get to eat seems a little unfair.

But the real reason is that this is the third month I’ve had a week of KP. Given that we have more than thirty employees, I shouldn’t be assigned this only about once every quarter. One error could be attributed to rescheduling because of employee churn. But two?

This got me thinking how this was possible.

Obviously, some people in the company never had to do KP duty. Unfortunately I can look up who they were on the company wiki.

Servant Leadership

My thoughts immediately fell on this Joel on Software story that flackette sent me. The same story is also found here:

For a few months in the army I worked in the mess hall, clearing tables and washing dishes nonstop for 16 hours a day, with only a half hour break in the afternoon, if you washed the dishes really fast. My hands were permanently red, the front of my blouse was permanently wet and smelly, and I couldn’t take it any more.

Somehow, I managed to get out of the mess hall into a job working for a high-ranking Sergeant Major. This guy had years of experience. He was probably twenty years older than the kids in the unit. Even in the field, he was always immaculate, wearing a spotless, starched, pressed full dress uniform with impeccably polished shoes no matter how dusty and muddy the rest of the world was around him. You got the feeling that he slept in 300 threadcount Egyptian cotton sheets while we slept in dusty sleeping bags on the ground.

His job consisted of two things: discipline and the physical infrastructure of the base. He was a bit of a terror to everyone in the battalion due to his role as the chief disciplinary officer. Most people only knew him from strutting around the base conducting inspections, screaming at the top of his lungs and demanding impossibly high standards of order and cleanliness in what was essentially a bunch of tents in the middle of the desert, alternately dust-choked or mud-choked, depending on the rain situation.

Anyway, on the first day working for the Sergeant Major, I didn’t know what to expect. I was sure it was going to be terrifying, but it had to be better than washing dishes and clearing tables all day long (and it’s not like the guy in charge of the mess hall was such a sweetheart, either!)

On the first day he took me to the officer’s bathroom and told me I would be responsible for keeping it clean. “Here’s how you clean a toilet,” he said.

And he got down on his knees in front of the porcelain bowl, in his pressed starched spotless dress uniform, and scrubbed the toilet with his bare hands.

To a 19 year old who has to clean toilets, something which is almost by definition the worst possible job in the world, the sight of this high ranking, 38 year old, immaculate, manicured, pampered discipline officer cleaning a toilet completely reset my attitude. If he can clean a toilet, I can clean a toilet. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning toilets. My loyalty and inspiration from that moment on were unflagging. That’s leadership.

I leave it as an exercise in intelligent guesswork as to who was exempt from KP at this company and why that makes me angry.

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