As a first year teacher I was eager to make a good impression. The superintendent of the school district I worked for at the time, met with each new teacher for about 10 minutes in the first few months of the year. This was the biggest meeting of my nascent professional career and I was excited to spend a few minutes with the man who was in charge. Our district consisted of 11,000 students, 1000 teachers and a nearly 200 million dollar annual operating budget. The superintendent was one of the most successful leaders I had ever met.
The day before I called my dad and told him about the big meeting. He offered some really salient advice that day. He said, “Don’t waste this meeting on you. Go prepared with 3-4 questions about leadership, so you can learn from him.” Essentially dad was challenging me not to let the 10 minutes become small talk about my life.
The next day, our “10 minute” meeting turned into a 45 minute discussion on leadership that forever changed the course of my life. Although I don’t remember all the topics we discussed, one in particular has left an indelible mark on my leadership and his thoughts have impacted my every day since that conversation. In retrospect, it was a rather brazen question to ask in my first month on the job.
“If I want to sit on your side of this desk in 10 years, what do I need to do?”
Sitting in the other side of a massive and magnificent cherry desk, the superintendent leaned back in his leather executive chair and chuckled softly to himself. My mind recalls with vivid detail fidgeting nervously, wondering if I had stepped across an unwritten boundary into the realm of the professionally inappropriate. After a few moments that seemed like a full school year, he learned forward and said these words, “If you want to be a great leader, go back to your classroom and be the best teacher you can possibly be. Then, wake up tomorrow and be even better. Do whatever it takes to be the best teacher you can be, and someday, you will be asked to be an assistant principal. When that day comes, do everything you can, to become the best assistant principal possible... eventually, you will be asked to lead more!”
That night, I spent a little longer on my lesson plans.
I was surrounded by several really great teachers that year. While observing these great teachers, I noticed a trend. They worked really hard on the details. They did grunt work after hours to ensure they continually improved their craft. Several of these teachers mentored and taught me that it meant being willing to stay late in order to tutor struggling students after the work day was over. It mean pouring over details on spreadsheets and grading reports to figure out what lessons were not working and collaborating with colleagues to figure out how to get better. It meant video recording my lessons and having a mentor give critical feedback. It meant tinkering with lesson plans late into the evenings. It meant home visits to collaborate with parents. None of these were required, but I began to realize that it was the grunt work, not the spotlight moments that caused the great teachers to succeed.
For the next 10 years, I did absolutely everything I could, to keep improving my craft. After a few years, I was asked to be an assistant principal. A few more years passed and I was asked to be a high school principal. Later, I was asked to become an Executive Pastor of a large church in Rochester, New York. Just as the superintendent predicted all those years ago, opportunities for increased leadership and influence were presented based on a pattern of doing whatever it took to keep improving. Although I am not a superintendent, the opportunities to lead and influence have come consistently in correlation with my willingness to do the grunt work at every level.
If you want to stand out from the crowd you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to become the best version of you that you can possibly become. This means, being willing to do the grunt work when no one else is willing to.
The life of Daniel is perhaps one of the greatest examples of this concept. Daniel rises from the ranks of the exiles to the elites. His consistent commitment to do the grunt work accelerated his meteoric political ascent. Without effort or self aggrandizing, Daniel is continually asked to assume increasing levels of leadership, influence and authority.
By the eighth chapter, we encounter Daniel at the pinnacle of power. He had been promoted to the highest political office in the entire empire, second only to the King. He oversaw a complex bureaucracy of literally thousands of advisors, leaders, governors and politicians. In spite of all this success, he was plagued with severe anxiety, fear and anguish as a result of a series of apocalyptically terrifying dreams. We read that these dreams were “terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong” (7:7). Daniel describes his mental and emotional condition during this time by writing, “my spirit within me was anxious and the visions of my head alarmed me” (7:15).
After several deeply disturbing visions, Daniel writes these words, “And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days. Then I rose and went about the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision…” (8:27). The most powerful man in the world, takes a few days of sick leave, and then returns the the grunt work of doing whatever the king needed him to do.
A man of his means and position could have taken a sabbatical to sort things out. He could have retired. After serving the empire for years across the reign of 4 different kings, he would have undoubtedly amassed a tremendous amount of wealth. An yet, rather then rest on his affluence, when faced with some of the most challenging circumstances in his life, he did what he always did. Daniel chose to pray and then get back to doing the best job he could in his current assignment.
Regardless of whether you are an intern or the president of the country, If you want to stand out from the crowd you have to be willing to do the grunt work!
Here are a few tips to think about as we strive to know what the grunt work is that we need to be engaged in if we want to be like Daniel.
4 Great Grunt Work Strategies:
- Always Serving – Never Bossing: There is no record of Daniel ever bossing anyone around. He served the king and others throughout his career, regardless of how high he rose within the political bureaucracy. He simply continued to serve those around him through prayer, advice, intercession, mentorship and honesty. Regardless of how important we become, we must never stop serving those around us.
- Always Advancing – Never Coasting: Daniel never stopped growing, reading, learning and striving to make an impact. He never stopped trying to advance in his spiritual or personal life. While it is easy to put life on cruise control once we have attained success, we will miss important assignments from God if we choose to stop advancing and coast. We don’t always need to be running at full speed, but every day we should be looking to advance.
- Always Humble – Never Prideful: Daniel never promoted himself or seek after accolades. He routinely resisted and rejected the typical entrapments of wealth and prestige when offered to him. Instead he chose to remain humble and centered in his relationship with God. Regardless of our talent and capabilities, we must have the humility to do tasks that may seem beneath us. Are we willing to get coffee or make copies for those we work with. The hard working and humble people will always rise.
- Always Helping – Never Hurting: Daniel never plays into the traditional political games of manipulation and brinksmanship. There is no record of him slandering any of his contemporaries, even though they onerously sought his demise. Every action and word we have expended throughout his life reveals that he was always helpful to those around him.
Daniel never stopped being willing to do the grunt work. While this is expected in youth, what sets Daniel apart from the crowd as he got older was his willingness to continue to be a servant to others.
Which of these 4 strategies can you apply to your life today?