Dirty Work

There’s a saying that goes, “Before you can be a good leader, you must be a good follower.”

It makes sense. A good leader must understand his followers, and that empathy comes from experiencing what followers experience. Being a follower also allows one to experience the direct consequences of both good and bad leadership, so in turn, as a leader, one may emulate what is good and avoid what is bad.

Since encountering that quote about a decade ago, I have not thought about it much except abstractly. It sounded good, for sure. It made whomever said it sound humble, and since humility is favorably regarded upon, I considered it a worthy saying.

But it didn’t “click.” I didn’t live my life that way.

In my quest for greatness, when I did think upon the quote, it was often in the context of concession—“I have to put up with this now, because it’s the only way I can succeed later”—rather than in the context of refining my character. So ironically, what I acknowledged the quote for—humility—was precisely what was missing in my attempts to use it.

The result was that I did not truly internalized the precondition to being a great leader, even as I saw examples in life and in literature (think We Were Soldiers). It just never connected, until now.

I’ve been pursuing my degree for some time, and as I’ve become increasingly engaged in my work, I’ve also become increasingly impatient with my other responsibilities in life. God knows how many times I’ve tried to recruit my sister to clean my room. On more than one occasion, I’ve remarked to some of my friends that I needed a secretary, half-jokingly, but half-serious.

But one day, a friend commented, “You’re so lazy!” to my Facebook post. She probably meant it in jest, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was a pretty big hole in my character. I wanted others to do my dirty work for me. And when I thought about that, I realized that it’s been going on for a long time. I was more than just being lazy. I was being self-entitled, and possibly even demeaning.

It’s a matter of principle. Why should I make other people do my dirty work? I need to be willing to wash my own dishes, mop my own floor, clean my own bathroom, sort my own documents. I need to take responsibility for my life. A leader has to be willing to be in the trenches, to get dirty. He cannot think himself higher than he ought. He cannot make his followers do something that he’s not willing to do himself. A general must not send his army into battle, but he must lead his army into battle. A king must not impose upon the citizens laws by which he himself cannot abide, but must be a paragon of virtue. Otherwise, it is the quickest way to lose respect and (more importantly) honor, not to mention long-term stability of his rule.

So is it okay to hire others to clean your house or to take care of your kids? Perhaps, if you keep in mind that they are just as human as you are, that their time is not less valuable than yours, that you are not above doing such work yourself. When others do your dirty work for you, be truly grateful, because without their support, you would not have the luxury of doing what you prefer to do. Your sister doesn’t owe you anything. Your wife doesn’t owe you anything. The janitors in your school or workplace don’t owe you anything. They are your neighbors. So thank them for what they do. Show your appreciation.

And this is addressed to myself as much as it is for whomever is reading this.

This week is Passion Week, the week preceding the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. I hadn’t intended a connection between my post and that event, but upon reflection, there is no escaping it.

This principle of leadership and humility is nowhere demonstrated more powerfully than in the person of Christ. His incarnation was an act of humiliation, of giving up his divine right (Philippians 2:6) to experience his people’s pain. He became human to experience their ailments and limitations so that he could sympathize with his creatures (Hebrews 4:15) and represent them before God (Hebrews 2:17-18).

And his crucifixion was also an act of humiliation, dying as God, put to death by the creatures He created, and innocently, by the most shameful method reserved for the worst in society. Here was a leader who went beyond doing dirty work, for he did the dirty work that belonged to others: he lived the lives they—we—should have lived, and died the deaths we should have died.

Just as we thank those around us who do our dirty work for us, let us be even more thankful to the God who was the ultimate Servant. And let us follow Him all the more fervently as the ultimate King.