Center for Organizational Leadership

Empowering Effective Leaders

Authentic Leadership: What I Learned from a School Custodian

by Dr. Rosalinda Mercado

Dr. Rosalinda Mercado currently teaches in the MAOL program and serves as the COO of the Sunny Glen Children's Home in Harlingen, Texas.

When I was 28 years old, I embraced a new role as the campus leader of a primary campus. With all my endless energy, practical research, and systemic thinking, I committed countless hours to the day-to-day operations of the school to turn it around. It was safe to say that out of the five days in a work week, I spent four days weekly problem-solving direct issues. However, I did not mind the time I committed to the role nor the issues that came up, as transformation was taking place.

I did not socialize outside of the school setting with the staff I worked alongside during my earlier years as a school leader. Regardless, I focused on the steps needed to build capacity among my teacher leaders, consistent in my communication and treated individuals with common human decency. It was the latter notion that I soon realized that others did not hold the same values as me.

A custodian came to my office to express her concern about remarks she received from a fellow colleague, who was an instructor of 3-year-old students. At times, the students had incidents with an unexpected bowel movement or digestive issues.

With tears in her eyes, she expressed, "I know it is my job to clean up when a child vomits, has an accident in the classroom...(she paused)...but I do not think it's right for this teacher to declare in front of everyone, including the children, "That this is what I need to do because that is my role to pick up after everyone else's mess." The custodian did not need to say more. I was heartbroken and humiliated for her.

I met with the teacher and had the necessary conversation. She immediately recognized that her words were unprofessional and futile, apologizing for her remarks to everyone involved. The custodian forged ahead with confidence, feeling valued, having her sense of self restored. This conversation prompted a shift in the dialogue our colleagues had with each other. I took this experience and countless others thereafter with me wherever I went.

Years later, I moved to a secondary campus and became their principal. I was clear in what I expected professionally from my colleagues and self, the students we served and from the inner city where our campus was located. Consequently, I implemented vision and mission exercises that would keep our team focused on mutual goals, objectives and set expectations for our conversations. For four years, everyone on the campus contributed to the successful graduation of students, reduced behavioral incidents, and retained teachers year after year in a safe and nurturing environment.

It has been ten years since my departure from that secondary campus. I reminisced on the conversations I had with everyone during my tenure. I received a communication from a former custodian a few years after leaving the role. The custodian saw a picture of me with another teacher on social media and expressed in Spanish how much she missed seeing the staff at the school. The teacher replied on the same feed, "Thank you for teaching me Spanish." I read those words for the first time not knowing what interactions the teacher and custodian had had while we worked together. All three of us have gone our separate ways professionally, yet we distinctly recall how positively we have impacted one another. Next to always encouraging each other to be courageous, the time we shared together has defined why we have remained connected personally.

Robin Sharma, author of The Saint, the Surfer and the CEO shared ten things authentic leaders do:

(1) They are clear, honest, and authentic with their words.

(2) They lead from the heart, recognizing the importance between relationships and work.

(3) They work on their character, as their walk aligns with their core values.

(4) They are courageous, taking the road less traveled and doing, not what is easy, but what is right.

(5) They build teams and create communities, creating environments that foster human linkages and lasting friendships.

(6) They deepen themselves, managing potential limiters and appreciating their strengths.

(7) They are dreamers, spending time with their eyes closed creating blueprints and fantasies that lead to better products, better services, better workplaces, and deeper value.

(8) They care for themselves.

(9) They commit to excellence rather than perfection.

(10) They leave a legacy.

When I read the post where my former teacher recognized our custodian colleague for her efforts in teaching her Spanish, I smiled. While I saw the traits described in the Sharma book, Amalia, our former custodian carried them, too. Her willingness to share her skills, ideas and voice made our conversations more meaningful, establishing mutual respect. I have learned that leadership - when authentic - belongs to the individuals who make the conscious choice to be a part of a greater purpose.

As a current corporate leader of a nonprofit organization, I find myself holding on to the same lessons learned I mentioned in my previous role as a public-school leader. It is quite probable that your hard skills will get you hired. However, it is your soft skills or personal attributes (e.g., systemic thinking, stress management, decision-making ability, etc.) that will enable you to be more productive in gaining results or building momentum. In my current role as a Chief Operations Officer of a children’s home (the same place that provided a place of hope for me as a foster youth), I am collaborating with colleagues much the same way. Together, we promote professionalism, respect, openness, motivation, integrity, support, and empathy in all of our interactions with staff and children. That is our PROMISE.

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves." Philippians 2:3 (NIV)

Author's note: Dr. Mercado originally contributed this article to the Huffington Post in 2015. She has updated the article to reflect the years that have since passed and to include her current leadership role.