Trash Cans and Leadership. 6 behaviors to strengthen your leadership ability

boy dives into a garbage can

There was a stretch of time lasting about six months that I would pick up the phone at work and be flummoxed by the most interesting scenarios happening on the other end of the line.

“Sandi,” the caller would start innocently enough. “Your son is sitting in a trash can in the school yard and he won’t come out.” “What do you want us to do?” asked the school principal.

“Um, I’m 30 miles away. What do you think you should do?”………

“Sandi?,” the familiar voice would ask on the other end of the phone. “Your son has planted himself on the top of the jungle gym and we can’t get him down?

“Fabulous,” I would respond, distracted and distressed at work but totally impotent at resolving this issue long distance.

“What do you think you should do?”…………

“Sandi,” the exasperated voice on the other end of the phone would say. “Class started 45 minutes ago and we can’t get your son to come in from the yard. We have your daughter and her whole class outside trying to coax him in.” ………..(p.s., I really wish I could have seen that scene play out).

“What do you think we should do?”……..

Ahh, good times.

Now, you might be thinking right about now, “what was wrong with that school and that principal. I would have corralled that kid long before the third phone call.”

The interesting thing is, I’ve encountered many leaders in high level corporate organizations who let the adult version of “barrel sitting” go on for far too long without corralling their wayward employees.

The school, and the principal, were both actually very good at what they did.

They did, however, err in two ways in this situation that many organizational leaders stumble in also:

They put an inexperienced teacher (leader) in a position that was above her abilities
They were too nice

My son, a mere five years old at the time, was the perfect example of going for the jugular when he perceived a weak spot.

He initially took advantage of a teacher who hadn’t yet learned how to control the class when the going got bumpy and then he accelerated the behavior when he realized that he would face no more punishment than being mildly coaxed to “come into the classroom, please.”

In the meantime, he was not only disrupting his immediate class, he was disrupting his sister’s class as well.

The same thing happens to organizations when well intentioned leaders lose control of even one rogue employee for too long.

How often have you heard leaders say that they “should have terminated an employee sooner” but didn’t because they felt bad?

How often have you heard employees grumble about whether their leaders “were blind about what was going on. Could they not see that so and so employee relies on everyone else to help him get his work done right?”

How often have you heard a leader say that they wish an employee “would just quit” to avoid making a difficult decision and being the bad guy?

How often have you heard that a team’s morale plummeted because an employee was goofing off and no one was doing anything about it?

How often have you heard someone say “well, if they don’t have to do it, I’m not going to either?”

People notice the weak spots in leadership.

Some will take advantage of them and go for the jugular. Some will be disrupted by the ripple effect.

Either way, you will lose engagement, productivity, and profitability if you don’t stop the behavior.

And in this case, while it is the employees actions that many will point to as the issue, the root of the problem is with righting the leadership behavior. It doesn’t mean that there may not be issues with specific employees also, but the eye of the storm in these situations is the leader.

The solutions:

Don’t be a pushover. Be confident and strong.. If you aren’t there yet, intentionally develop those qualities.
Don’t mistake making tough decisions with “being mean”
Be consistent in terms of the expectations and standards you set throughout the organization and quickly and firmly address intentional transgressions
Understand that bad behavior and difficult decisions don’t just “go away” on their own. You have to make them go away
Realize that kindness and firmness can co-exist and practice finding the balance
Intentionally develop leadership talent at all levels of the organization. One leader over their head is one too many

Do you have any “barrel sitters” on your team right now and do you know what you must do to coax them out once and for all?

Sandi Coryell is a Leadership Strategist, Consultant, and Speaker. You can follow her on twitter @SandiCoryell or contact Sandi directly at


  1. In the immortal words of Tim Gunn “make it work”. I believe when you deliver a situation, you should deliver a proposed solution. Have something. Anything. Loved it Sandi. Another great and insightful blog.