Cigarette Butt Leadership

By David Robertson, IPLI Mentor and Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education at Warsaw Community Schools

            Recently, I was reminded of an experience early in my administrative days that was formative for me regarding my leadership. I was speaking with a colleague about a boss I used to work with. For one reason or another, a story came up in which my boss told me, “You know, there has been a cigarette butt lying outside the door of our office for three weeks, and no one from the custodial team has yet to notice. I’m very curious to see if and who will step up to take some ownership in how the building looks.” 

My colleague looked at me and said, “I want to be a leader who just picks the cigarette butt up and throws it away.”

            I’ll never forget that conversation because it challenged my paradigm for leadership. When I initially brought up my boss’ comments, I saw them as a source of pride because I valued one who monitors work for quality. My colleague challenged my whole leadership framework in one sentence, and my life course has never been the same!

My colleague’s comment highlighted several essential truths:

  1. We all want to work for someone who isn’t above anything or anyone. If a leader is willing to do what they ask others to do, we’re motivated to follow wholeheartedly.
  1. Modeling is the best way to develop the culture we want in an organization. If I want others to take pride in the facility, I need to take pride in the facility. Leaders are always on call, and people are watching!
  1. Authentic leadership is found in serving others. We are at our best as leaders when we are serving others. We feel good about ourselves, and the organization takes on a feeling of togetherness when leaders set the example in serving others.
  1. Leadership is about doing the right thing even when, especially when, no one is watching. Leaders understand that even if no one else notices the cigarette butt, it’s still the right thing to do to clean it up.

            I often think of the cigarette butt conversation, especially when leading feels exhausting, non-glorious, and, frankly, menial. At the end of the day, I want to be a leader who does what’s right no matter who’s watching. I want to be the guy who picks up the cigarette butt!