You’re Never Too Big to Serve

My first job in high school was working at a small grocery store in town. I remember there were only eight aisles, so it wasn’t long before I had most of the place figured out. Unfortunately it wasn’t very complicated, and when I wasn’t assisting customers in the front, I was usually walking through the aisles pulling the products neatly to the front of the shelves. I’ll be honest, I hated it. I kept wishing I could be working with my brain instead of my hands. In fact, sometimes when I’d see friends come into the store, I’d find something to do in the back so they didn’t catch me doing such a menial task.

Fast forward several years. I was serving in Iraq with the Army. I was proud that my Special Operations job allowed me to work in an advisory capacity with both the State Department and local NGOs. One day I opted to work from the base instead of going on the mission, only to find out that all the soldiers remaining behind needed to help with a special project: sandbag detail. When I tried to get out of it, my leader gave me a pretty healthy tongue-lashing and appointed me sandbag project leader for the day.

How did I get so mixed up about what was really important?

If I could go back, I’d give myself a little shoulder-shaking and a reminder about what service really looks like.

We All Serve a Purpose

It’s unfortunate how quickly we lose sight of the larger purpose of our efforts. For instance, why do grocery stores exist? (It’s not primarily to create a sense of self efficacy for 15 year-olds). They exist to provide food products to the local neighborhood and to earn a profit. To that extent, every function of the store, from straightening the shelves to cleaning the floors to bringing in carts helps the grocery store serve the customers. And in Iraq, there was a very real possibility that the sandbags I stacked would prevent a rocket from landing on my head at night. (The rockets didn’t care if I had “special skills”).

One of the major factors of disengagement is the inability (including by choice) to see how one’s job connects to the greater purpose. There is a significant difference between “laying track” and “building the first transcontinental railroad,” even if the job is the same. Sometimes a little perspective goes a long way.

The Purpose of Serving is Others

I remember another Army mission that started before 5 A.M. one day and lasted until late at night. Everything that could go wrong did. The next day, the battalion commander brought all the leaders into a room to take us to task. His main message was a poignant reminder: “If anyone here thinks you are too important to help one of the younger soldiers be successful, I’m here to tell you that you aren’t. And neither am I. So we’re not going to let this happen again.”

A former FBI executive once addressed our project team stating that successful leaders are the ones who “are good at making other people looking good.” In working with a Center of Excellence director at another company, we built a development model that helped identify future executives by significantly factoring in the success of their direct reports – even above their own individual performance. (After all, being a great individual contributor is never enough to succeed as an executive).

It’s interesting to hear the success stories of successful people. Nearly all of them point to individuals who went out of their way to show them the ropes – people who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty together.

In his book The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni talks about an interaction with a CEO of a hugely successful company where he asked why the competition didn’t emulate their best practices. The CEO responded that he honestly thought the competition felt it was beneath them. What a waste!

Greatness is within reach, but it’s greatness through service. Find the greater purpose in the day-to-day tasks. (And by the way, if you believe there is none, it’s your responsibility from a continuous improvement standpoint to share your thoughts). And find others around you to serve in the process. When we do the little things like they are the big things, the bigger opportunities will start to come.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, facilitator and author of the book Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to download Nathan's free white paper: Nine Ways to Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For.