Cleaning House: 5 Leadership Messes to Clean Up Before You Let the Neighbors In

My doorbell rang unexpectedly last week.  With zero notice, the person on the front step wanted to come in and look around.  My heart skipped a beat;  “was my place presentable” I asked myself?  That got me thinking.  What if we had surprise visitors to the teams we lead?  Before letting them in, what embarrassing leadership messes would we want to be sure to clean up?  Here are five I think we have to watch out for, and how to take care of them.

An Unexpected Question

Can we see your bathroom?

That’s the question she asked.  Without preamble.  I didn’t even know her name, or her husband’s, as they both stood there at my front door.

I was just back from a workout and headed upstairs to the shower when the doorbell rang.  It was my neighbors from a few doors down.  We were still fairly new to the area and hadn’t officially met. 

But many months ago we had redone part of the master bathroom, adding a tile shower.  The work team had set up saw horses on the front lawn, where they could cut the tile with a wet saw.

From across the street, my neighbor had asked what the project was.  I told her, and she looked interested, so I offered to let her see it when it was done.  She said she thought that would be nice.  End of conversation – she had to go somewhere.

That was nearly six months ago; now here they were out of the blue, standing on my doorstep, asking to come in.

Is the Coast Clear?

Just then, my wife returned from walking the dog, so we finally made introductions official.  Then I left them to chat while I dashed upstairs to make sure the “coast was clear” before inviting them in.

If you think about it, the master bathroom is about the most intimate place in the house.  It, and the path to get to it, would reveal a lot to any visitor about who we were.  Of course, I wanted to make sure there would be no embarrassment, so I undertook a quick reconnaissance mission.

It wasn’t so bad, really.  Close the hamper.  Toss my yet-unpacked bag from our trip to Split Rock Lighthouse into the closet and shut the door.

The rest of the house was OK, too; there were dishes drying by the sink, but the counter was clean.  I may have tossed a dog toy back into its bin.  It’s a house that people live in, after all.

We all masked-up, and I took them upstairs.  It turns out that they were considering doing some renovations of their own and were looking for ideas.  She had remembered my invitation, and on a whim decided to ring the bell.

It was a short but fun visit, and we are glad to finally start to get to know them.  Minutes later, they were gone. 

But the suddenness of the whole thing struck me from a leadership perspective.  What if the way we lead our teams was our “house?”  Would we be ready to let outsiders come in to see how we are “living” at the drop of a hat?

If we were to dash ahead to make sure the “coast was clear” what kind of leadership messes would we be most embarrassed by?  What would we want to clean up before outside eyes could see?  

Here are five areas of our leadership house we should always try to keep cleaned up.

5 Leadership Messes

1.  Dirty laundry everywhere.  Like smelly piles of dirty clothes, when gossip, discourteous speech, and rumor-mongering begin to accumulate, it can stink up a place quickly, and create an environment that nobody wants to be a part of. 

Clean up:  Social interaction is important, but no team survives long when that interaction is based on abuse, disrespect, negativity, and social assassination.   If things are beginning to smell, we may need to re-look the example we are setting and the behavior we are allowing.  It may be time to rebuild the team’s culture from the ground up.

2.  Crumbs in the kitchen.  In a messy kitchen, when the lights go off, the bugs come out.  With creepy-crawlies all over the dirty dishes, things can become unhealthy pretty quickly.  Who was supposed to clean up this time?  This is all about delegation and accountability. 

Clean up:  Teammates have to have a clear understanding of what their responsibilities are.  If people are confused about who does what, it’s on us to bring clarity.  If they aren’t confused, then it’s on us to supply discipline.  Like it or not, sometimes we have to hold people accountable.  If we don’t clean up that mess, the infestation in the kitchen will only grow worse.

3.  Nasty bathroom.   Like what happens in the bathroom, not everything needs to be exposed to public scrutiny.  Some things should stay behind closed doors.  But if we are to build trust, our teammates have to believe that what happens there is always done in the best interests of the team.

Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. - C. S. Lewis Click To Tweet

Clean up:  There will always be temptations to quibble with the truth a little, cut a corner, or allow people to be misled, especially if it makes us look good (or prevents us from looking bad).  But these are the most important times to be certain we don’t.  

4.  Gaps in the floor.  Like loose floorboards, if the team is starting to see daylight between what we say and what we do, they will begin to question the security of the foundation they are standing on.  Trust is essential to any high-performing team in the same way that nails hold the floor boards in place.  Without it, everything quickly falls apart. 

Clean up:  In every word and act, both large and small, we have to promise to do only what we are willing to do, and then we have to be absolutely sure to do it.  Often, that can mean knowing how to say “no” so we can focus our efforts on keeping the commitments we have made. 

5.  Neat as a pin.  A perfectly clean house may seem ideal, but that might actually indicate there is a problem, too.  As Colin Powel likes to say,

If your desk is clean and no one is bringing you problems, you should be very worried.– Colin Powell Click To Tweet

If our teammates aren’t bringing us their problems, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have any.  It may mean that they don’t think we can help fix them, or worse, they don’t think we care.  The house may look clean, but only because nobody wants to live there anymore.

Clean up:  Like the clean dishes drying on the shelf in my kitchen, or the dog toys in the living room, there is always going to be some “work in progress” happening somewhere on the team.  If we don’t see it, we may not be close enough to the team to really know what is going on.  Spending some time with them down in the trenches may be the best way to get back in touch.

Leadership Messes – The Takeaway

Leadership is a people business at heart and we can get pretty messy from time to time.  Good teams and good leaders recognize that keeping the house in order, and all those leadership messes cleaned up, takes constant attention and effort.

When it comes to how we live, Will Rogers once encouraged us:

Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip. – Will Rogers Click To Tweet

Maybe that is a good approach for leadership, too, though slightly modified:

Lead in such a way that you wouldn’t be ashamed to have anyone spend a day with your team.

Or better,

Lead in such a way that others would want to be on your team. Click To Tweet

Oh,….  did you hear that?   

Was that the door bell???

Lead On!


Who else would enjoy this post?
About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

Related Posts
Welcome to the Team!
It's great to have you join us!
Ken Downer - Founder of RapidStart Leadership
Please check your email
to confirm (and get a gift)
Get the leadership tools to help
2x Month * Direct Email * No Spam

They are ready to follow...

...are you ready to lead?

lead your virtual team

Subscribe now