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Sweep the Sheds, Scrub the Toilets

Leaders of character are willing to do the dirty work

When I look back on my collegiate days, I will fondly remember wearing a cumbersome vacuum pack for hours at a time in unseasonal spring heat, damp-dusting hundreds of identical bookshelves and desks—and yes, scrubbing fellow classmates’ toilets.

Seriously—working for Dorm Crew’s Spring Clean-Up over the past few years has been one of my most memorable experiences at Harvard. While some of our dear classmates live so much like animals that their rooms attract actual animals, Spring Clean-Up can be enjoyable and rewarding work despite the unexpected visits from woodland creatures. Transforming a room from an unmitigated disaster to a gleaming triumph in a matter of hours is quite the team effort and accomplishment.

I can see The Onion’s sarcastic headline now: “Elitist college student does normal-person job and has ‘life-changing’ experience.” Not entirely unfair. I admit that it does smack of Ivy elitism to turn work that real people do as part of a full-time job into some kind of summer camp character-building experience.

Nonetheless, elitist college students can benefit from partaking in solid manual labor. If we want to be leaders of any sort, we need to learn how to do the dirty work, because leadership is not about stature, but stewardship and taking care of your organization and people. You can tell a great deal about a person’s character by watching them mop floors and de-scum showers that you cannot otherwise discern in an academic setting.

This is not an uncommon scene: a brilliant Harvard pre-med, star athlete, or prodigal musician is instructed to mop the floor of every room on a given floor by a certain time. They do so by entering each room and first sitting on the bare bed on their phone for several minutes before deigning to move the furniture and wet the mop. When a frazzled and harried Captain comes to check on them, they say they need more time. This behavior hardly exemplifies good character.

Yes, you are being paid by the hour, and no one will likely be any the wiser to your languid deceit. But what we do when no one is looking, evaluating, or interviewing us reveals the strength of our character and work ethic.

Too often I have seen that our imagined Harvard discipline and attention to detail is actually quite disingenuous, selectively applied to only resume-building parts of our lives. Supposedly, we pride ourselves on the strength of our resolve and willingness to tackle tough problems, our dedication to doing good. If we are only driven and determined in a few parts of our lives, we are not really driven or determined at all.

I have been fortunate, however, to work alongside many individuals who take pride in the long hours of Dorm Crew, do everything they can not to falter or fall behind in their cleaning assignments, and uphold the high standards of cleanliness that their Captains outline for them. Even though I only interact with such people for a few short weeks, it is readily evident that they possess a true and noble work ethic that if it appears while scrubbing toilets, it must surely permeate their entire lives.

I’ve worked for Captains with better leadership and management skills than many Business School and Kennedy School students, who somehow manage to turn drudge work into a project the entire crew wants to be excellent. These Captains were equally as up to their elbows in cleaning chemicals and dust, knew that a dozen donuts would lift morale on a Friday morning, and expected quality work from everyone.

Individuals and leaders who are willing to get their hands dirty can reap huge rewards for their organizations. For example, “sweep the sheds” is a first principle for the winningest rugby captain of all time and arguably the most dominant rugby side of all time. Richie McCaw, captain of the New Zealand All Blacks, has a habit of sweeping dirt and other post-combat gunk out of the team’s locker room after a match or practice with other members of New Zealand’s pantheon of rugby greats.

It is a literal and deeply symbolic mantra. Andrew Mehrtens, a former All Black flyhalf, describes it as “not expecting someone to do your job for you. It teaches you not to expect things to be handed to you.” The All Blacks have won 86 percent of their matches since this radical cultural shift, and have a winning record against every opponent.

We can attend all the leadership development seminars, conferences, and lectures we want. Goodness knows Harvard is full of these opportunities. We can read tome upon tome, ruminate, and hypothesize. But only our willingness to sweep the sheds and scrub the toilets will reveal the content of our character and genuine leadership.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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