Long ago, when I worked at the Starbucks Canadian Support Center (SCSC), every Partner (employee) hired at the office spent their first two weeks working as a barista in a retail store.
Those two weeks taught you how (and why) everyone working at the SCSC was there to support our Store Partners, who then had all the support they needed to properly serve our customers. The general concept is known as Servant Leadership, and experiencing it first-hand was an important learning experience.
Of course, spending two weeks as a Starbucks barista also meant you knew how to make all of those fancy specialty drinks yourself. And the SCSC had a fully-stocked Starbucks bar in the kitchen, so while employees at most other offices would pour themselves a cup of slightly-stale cup of brewed coffee at break-time, I was able to make myself a Quad-Venti, Non-fat, Half-sweet Caramel Macchiato. I regret becoming so enamoured with this beverage, because these days, without my partner discount, each one costs me $8.19.
For practical reasons, the kitchen also had a dishwasher where partners could put their dirty coffee cups. There wasn't anybody whose job was to take care of the dishwasher; the general expectation was that you would load your own mug, start the dishwasher when it was full, and empty it when the cleaning cycle was complete.
One morning, less than a month into my tenure with the company, I happened to arrive at the office exceptionally early and got there in time to see Colin Moore unloading the dishwasher.
Colin was the President of Starbucks Canada.
He wasn't unloading the dishwasher because he didn't have anything better to do; at that time, Starbucks was experiencing astounding growth in several different channels and a lot of that momentum was often attributed to his tremendous leadership.
And he certainly wasn't doing it for show; it was just the two of us in the office at that hour, and his act would have likely gone completely unnoticed had I not decided to go in so early. If he wanted to, he could have easily just taken the one mug he would have needed for his own coffee and left the rest of the dishwasher for someone more junior to unload.
But that's not what leaders do.
Leaders are authentic. They don't have one set of guidelines for when people are watching them, and another for when they're alone.
Leaders make the time to do what needs to be done. They understand that "busy" can be all-consuming if you allow it to be an excuse. If the President of the company could take the time to unload the dishwasher, the message was clear: no one was too important to do what needed to be done.
Leaders lead by example. They don't ask others to do what they wouldn't be willing to do themselves. In this case, the understanding was that everyone, regardless of title or seniority, was responsible for that dishwasher, and this leader was simply "walking the talk" by unloading it himself instead of delegating it to someone "less important".
Unloading the dishwasher was a small act.
But sometimes small acts have big meanings.