It was only a paper cup, but it apparently spoke volumes about character and leadership.
The scene was the fourth quarter of a recent NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Ravens. With just a couple of minutes left to play – and the Cowboys assured of a victory – television cameras captured what at first seemed to be an innocuous moment.
Cowboys’ rookie sensation quarterback Dak Prescott – who has guided his team to a remarkable 9-1 record – took a drink out of a paper cup, and then reached around to throw the cup into a garbage can. Ironically for a man that had just had an outstanding passing game, Prescott missed the can. He then does a double take and hops up, retrieves the wayward cup, and puts it safely in the garbage.
Prescott’s act of tidiness captured the imagination of sports and business columnists.
“What he did is really not a big deal, and at the same time that’s what makes it a big deal, or at least something worth noting,” sports and leadership commentator Jerry Barca said in Forbes Magazine.
“Did Prescott have any idea the camera was on him?” asked CBS senior writer Will Brinson. Probably not. Would anyone care if the cup stayed on the ground? Again, probably not. Is this reading too deep into the action from Prescott? Maybe.
But he’s the king of the world right now (the quarterback of America’s Team, anyway), and he’s led the Cowboys to a 9-1 start to the 2016 season that has him shattering records for rookies and looking like the future of the Dallas franchise. He can do whatever he wants on the sidelines. And he still took the extra second to pick up the trash that someone else would have handled.
Clearly, some of these commentators were unsure just how big a deal Prescott’s paper cup gesture meant in the grand scheme of football and leadership.
It was a big deal for thousands of people who took to social media expressing how important this small act was and how much it spoke of Prescott’s character.
This is where the universal lesson for all leaders begins to emerge. This little act was indeed a very big deal.
When you’re in a leadership position, everyone is watching you. Even the smallest actions you undertake speak volumes about you, both as a leader and a human being.
I remember once being at a lunch meeting when someone in a clerical role offered to clear my plate. I didn’t feel right about that, so I told her politely ‘no thanks’ and I got up and put it away.
Later in the day, I heard that my simple gesture was all the talk among the admin staff. Apparently, the fact that I was willing to clean up after myself spoke volumes about me as a person and me as a leader. I really didn’t think it was a big deal at the time, but others respectfully disagreed.
Author and businessman Stephen Covey once said that, “In relationships, the little things are the big things”. That’s also true in leadership. For Prescott, his small action speaks volumes about a young man who is clearly more mature and thoughtful than your average NFL rookie.
The more important question for all of us is this: how do we perform in those little, innocuous moments when all eyes are on us?
I know people who are good leaders but undermine themselves because they are not mindful and deliberate in those small moments.
How innocuous are some of those critical moments? Here are some of the things I’ve heard people use to assess someone’s leadership:
- Leaving others to put their coffee cup into the dishwasher at work.
- Assuming that someone else will clean up a meeting room so that it’s tidy for the next group coming in.
- Failing to take the time to say good morning to colleagues.
- Spending too much time talking to peers and ignoring more junior staff.
These are pretty small things, but they speak volumes to the people around us. As leaders, we need to treat people around us the way we would want to be treated. We need to roll up our sleeves and perform some mundane tasks, while demonstrating clearly that we don’t expect people to wait on us hand and foot.
Leadership is about performing under intense scrutiny all the time. It’s important for us all to demonstrate, all the time, that we are worthy of the confidence and respect of those we lead. Start being more deliberate and pay attention to the little things in your own leadership role.
This week’s Gut Check: do you pay attention to the little things of leadership?