Showing an example of leadership landed me a job. Just not in a way you might think.
I always plan to show up early for every appointment, just in case. There are many variables, from traffic to parking to finding the right building and floor, that could affect my being on time. I don’t always get there early, but I do plan for it.
This was one of those days when everything just clicked. No traffic. Open parking. Bizarrely smooth sailing. It turns out, I was 20 minutes early.
I killed time by buying coffee and a magazine, and I went in to see the receptionist. I could just sit and relax and read and wait.
It was the summer of 2001. I had just started my career as a business coach for some big companies like Johnson & Johnson and Bear Sterns. This was going to be a big account for me, if I got the job. My meeting was supposed to be with some guy named Alex—a bigwig, senior VP. I had my pitch completely nailed after practicing exactly what I was going to say to land the account until I had it down cold. I was so confident I was simply going to enjoy the magazine and my coffee in the waiting area.
An example of leadership… in the ladies’ room
This story sticks out in my mind because of one singular image: the ladies’ room. I was in a professional office building; I expected certain things. One of them was a relatively clean restroom. But I was shocked when I walked in. It was a mess. Something akin to “the horror” Colonel Walter Kurtz was talking about in Apocalypse Now.
I emerged from my stall to see a woman, a businesswoman, cleaning up—picking up the paper towels, wiping up the sink area. I was so impressed that I immediately mimicked her example of leadership. After all, I didn’t want anyone to think I was in any way responsible for contributing to this catastrophe.
I attempted to make small talk and support her plan of attack, saying, “A woman’s work is never done….”
“Do you think women feel so at ease in here they are truly themselves, or is it the opposite, and they just stop caring?” she asked me, then scooted out the door.
I returned to my coffee and magazine in the waiting area until the receptionist ushered me into the vice president’s office for my big interview. And there she sat: the woman from the ladies’ room.
“Hi, I’m Mel.”
“Nice to meet you, Mel; I’m Alex.” Silly for me, of all people, to think I had to be meeting a guy.
“I have to tell you, Alex, you really got me thinking about bathroom etiquette,” I said. “I think people just don’t think it’s their job. They know someone else will take care of it.”
Alex replied quickly: “Then I think most people are missing the point.”
What makes a great leader
“You are absolutely right. I learned one thing today. A true leader leaves the bathroom cleaner than they found it. You are someone I definitely have to work with.”
And with that, I had the job. No planned speech, no résumé. We just saw eye to eye. She taught me a lesson I carry with me to this very day. When I get up and leave a conference room, a public restroom, any space, I want to show my leadership by example. Leading is just that—taking the lead.
Alex was right. Most people are missing the point. A true leader leaves the bathroom cleaner than they found it.
How do you behave when no one is watching? Answer that, and you’ll know whether you truly have the leadership gene. If you do, I’d follow you anywhere. Even in a public restroom.
This article was published in November 2012 and has been updated. Photo by Kinga/Shutterstock