Leadership in the Little Things

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley

"No leader is worth his salt who won't set up chairs." –Peter Drucker

In my time as Leadership Development Chairman for the Grand Lodge of Illinois, I’ve collected hundreds of quotations about leadership, and last year I collected 366 of them in a book of meditations on servant leadership. Of those 366, Peter Drucker’s line about setting up chairs is one of my favorites. It makes a fundamental point about the nature of leadership, because leadership, at its core, is influence, and our influence, for good or ill, is based on our behavior. I saw an example of this principle in action not long ago.

I’ve taught at Eastern Illinois University for a while now, and have seen university presidents come and go. Our current president, Dr. William Perry, who is retiring at the end of this academic year, is my fourth. He’s a brilliant man, a mathematician and historian, possessed of a keen wit, a gentle manner, and a genuine concern for others. He’s a real leader, and something I saw the other day drove that point home.

I was stopped at a stoplight in front of Old Main the other day, and saw President Perry walk out of the building. He was about to turn left when he noticed a pop bottle on the sidewalk about thirty feet to his right. Reversing direction, he walked over, picked it up, and headed off toward his original destination, no doubt intending to deposit the bottle in a recycling bin. It didn’t take long, he didn’t know anyone was watching, and it wasn’t a big moment in his day. It was just something he did as a matter of course. But it said something important about his way of doing things that is important for Masons to consider: details matter, and getting them right is the job of everyone in the lodge. If you’re a leader, and President Perry certainly is one, you have to notice and take care of the little things.

The best leaders treat everyone with respect and kindness, especially those who are powerless before them. If we are leaders, we show up first, make sure everything is as it’s supposed to be, and do whatever is necessary. If the chairs aren’t set up, start setting them up, because leadership is doing what’s necessary for everyone to succeed, and no leader is too good for small tasks. That’s especially true for Masons. We meet on the level, as Brethren, from the youngest Entered Apprentice to the Worshipful Master who presides in the East; we are all Master Masons. Details matter, picking up trash matters, sweeping up matters. The Master of a lodge should be the first one to do the meanest work. Like Dr. Perry, he should go out of his way to pick up a pop bottle, because the thing we ignore is the standard we set. As we set out to adjust the rough ashlars in our lives with our working tools, we have to set the highest standard for ourselves. Our influence, our leadership, depends on the standards to which we hold ourselves. We won’t attain perfection, for that is beyond our reach, but if we stretch for it, we will grasp that much more. And maybe, just maybe, we will inspire others to reach a little farther, to go out of their way to give attention to a detail they might not have noticed otherwise, as President Perry inspired someone he didn’t know was watching to spend more time picking up trash. It’s what a leader does.


R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois, A.F. & A.M, as Leadership Development Chairman and Assistant Area Deputy Grand Master of the Eastern Area. A Certified Lodge Instructor, he is a Past Master and Life Member of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and a plural member of Island City Lodge No. 330, F & AM, in Minocqua, Wisconsin. He currently serves the Valley of Danville, AASR, as Most Wise Master of the George E. Burow Chapter of Rose Croix; he is also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the York Rite, Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees, Eastern Star, Illini High Twelve, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon. The author of several articles on British history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.You can contact him at: m.h.shirley@gmail.com

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