I woke up to the piercing sound of a fire alarm at 1:30 am. The alarm emanated from the hallway of a hotel & spa that I was staying at. I jumped out of bed, ran to the door and looked down the hallway. There was no smoke but the fire doors were closed. I quickly threw on some clothes and contemplated gathering all of my belongings. I grabbed a book on the way out, a gift from my wife, and left the rest of my possessions behind.

My retreat down several flights of stairs was urgent but un-panicked. I was surprised that the front desk in the lobby was vacant. The only hotel staff in sight was a janitor, mopping the floor.  I made my way outside and assessed the building from the parking lot. There were no signs of smoke. So I returned inside to observe functioning in those anxious early morning hours.

I was amazed at how long it took folks to make their way to the lobby. Over the next 10-20 minutes, they trickled in from the stairway. Some quickly exited the building while others remained indoors, ready to make a quick exit into the elements on a cold January night. The lobby air was filled with the complaints of disgruntled guests. They raged over the absence of any hotel officials. As the lobby filled with guests, the janitor distanced himself from his floor cleaning duties in the center of the room and mopped a distant patch of floor in the corner.

Eventually, the front desk clerk made an appearance and informed guests that a burst water pipe had caused the alarm. The fire department arrived and restored the elevator to working condition. As disgruntled guests made their way back to their rooms, slowly but surely, the janitor made his way back to his original position in the center of the room. His mop never stopped throughout the ordeal.

The Aligned Strategy

The position of a janitor is one that I have often heard leadership consultants superficially elude to, during strategic planning exercises, as requiring connection to the vision/mission/values and goals of the organization.

“Even the janitor should understand how the day to day activities of his job contribute to the strategic goals” harkens the expert

I contemplated the functioning of the janitor. Was this a failure of leadership?

Perhaps the leader did a superb job of ensuring the janitor felt connected to the strategic goals of the organization. Perhaps the janitor knew just how important clean floors were to the guest experience in this upscale New York spa! Somehow the aligned tasks of the job description ended up transcending the object of the strategy.

What would it have taken for the janitor to drop the mop?