Never Walk by Trash

August 23, 2022

by Stephen T. Messenger

I was walking into my office building last week with a few colleagues when I clearly saw a piece of trash laying on the ground. I instinctively tried to ignore it when once again the all-too-familiar voice of a man I’ve never personally met, but once heard speak, echoed in my head.

“Never pass a piece of trash without picking it up.”   

General Michael Garrett, former United States Army Forces Command Commander, talks about his three leadership imperatives with the first being: never pass a piece of trash without picking it up, either literal or metaphorical. Since I heard that concept years ago, I’ve struggled to walk by litter.

What resonates most with me about his theory is example setting. While it’s good for the leader to beautify the area, it’s better that others follow their example be it trash collecting or treating others positively. What’s important to the boss is important to the organization.

When you’re seen picking up trash, others will follow. Sometimes because it’s the right thing to do. Other times to stave off future embarrassment. Either way, your organization becomes better.

Albert Schweitzer, French philosopher said, “Example is not the main thing of influencing others—it is the only thing. More depends on your walk than on your talk, what you practice than what you preach, what you do than what you say.”

What people see you do is more important than your words. A negative example from many years ago in my house was when I became frustrated and left the room, throwing my baseball cap on the floor. The kids happened to see it and seven years later I still hear playful comments from them on how I might throw a hat if I get upset.

In a positive example, three years ago I mistakenly took a pen from a restaurant. Upon realizing my mistake, I drove miles back to deliver it to the waitress. The kids talk about that as well.

Years later! They still remember incidents years later! John Maxwell stated that “Eighty-nine percent of what people learn comes through visual stimulation; ten percent through audible stimulation; and one percent through other senses… What they hear they understand. What they see they believe.”

Now, I’m human and I miss sometimes. In a more recent example, I overheard a side comment that could have been perceived as outside the bounds of appropriate at work. I always use this litmus test: if it can’t be said in front of my 17-year-old daughter, it shouldn’t be said in any context.

I should have stopped everything right there and turned to the person, seeking immediate clarification on what I might have heard. I should have picked up the potential trash comment. I didn’t.

Since I wasn’t quite sure what was implied by the comment (terrible excuse by the way), I ignored it. I left trash on the ground. That night, General Garrett’s voice resonated in my head, and the next morning, I went into work a little earlier and approached that person. It turned out to be an innocent comment but one that a bystander like myself could easily have interpreted as inappropriate if not in the conversation.

Next, I went to the person who received the comment and apologized for not taking immediate action. I picked up my trash.

I could preach on the importance of propriety in the workplace all day long. But until someone sees me confront it, they really don’t have a reason to believe I’ll act. The bystander in this example initially learned that I wasn’t going to uphold a standard of impropriety in the workplace.

After my apology and corrective action, they can assume I will in the future. That’s why example is so important.

Others must see us:

– picking up the (literal) trash in our organization

– taking difficult and immediate action on poor behavior

– recognizing others that emulate the value system of the team

– caring about the small details

They have to see us ‘doing.’ If the leaders aren’t upholding the standards, no one is. It is okay to miss sometimes. When I missed immediately addressing a comment, I fixed my mistake and now use this example to tell others about my error and how I’m human. We all learn best by doing, and I know I won’t do it again.

There is great power in example. It provides others both inspiration and a model of how others should act in your organization. And if not you, then who?

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