Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsIdeas for those starting out or starting over.

While not actively trying out for “America’s Dirtiest Jobs,” as an older teenager striving to pay for my college tuition, I likely would have been a great candidate.

One job involved scraping coal mill parts with a hand scraper and a wire brush as part of prepping them for repainting. Another least-favorite at this same employer found me donning a respirator and climbing into the main tube of a Cleaver-Brooks boiler armed with a high-powered vacuum and a wire brush. My job was to scrape and suck the soot out of the tube.

In yet another testament to what someone will do to earn college tuition, I worked in a chemical packaging factory on the acid line, filling plastic gallon bottles with Muriatic Acid. Inevitably, one of the bottles would mis-align with the filling nozzle, sending acid spraying. If it hit your work pants, it wasn’t uncommon to have them literally begin to fall apart on you later in the day.

The work was dirty, but the pay was good and there was even some immediate gratification. The freshly painted mill parts looked fabulous as they were shipped out for reuse; I enjoyed showing off my clean boilers to prospective clients, and the drive to meet the summer swimming pool demand for acid pushed us to find new ways to perform and break production records. Yes, I actually enjoyed this physically demanding, dirty work.

As I graduated from college and from those summer jobs and moved into my initial role as a supervisor, I confess to struggling a bit with the new challenges. Gone was the immediate gratification gained from seeing your results. The physical exertion disappeared, and I quickly learned that dealing with people wasn’t as glamorous as I had imagined.

It turns out that the work of managing and developing as a leader has its own analogous form of difficult, messy work. While it is softer and gentler on the arms, skin and work pants than my activities above, it is significantly more taxing emotionally. There’s also no avoiding it, or, like the effect from the errant acid-nozzle above, you will soon be exposed.

The best leaders quickly learn that the difficult messy tasks are the difference-makers. They seek training and coaching and they practice these tasks over and over again in pursuit of competence.

The Heavy Lifting and Messy Tasks of the Leader:

  • Delivering constructive feedback—the tough kind.
  • Taking the heat for your team’s misfire.
  • Motivating your team.
  • Dealing with the personal issues of team members that invade the workplace.
  • Firing and hiring.
  • Navigating individual and group performance challenges.
  • Helping people see their true potential and supporting their development.
  • Delivering bad news.
  • Standing up for a team-member when everyone else is on the other side.
  • Reinforcing your firm’s values in your decision-making.
  • Admitting that you made a mistake.
  • Making difficult decisions where the buck stops with you.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The real work of managing and guiding others is just a bit messy, and the payback isn’t often immediately visible. It takes character and courage to tackle these tough tasks. If you’re committed to doing this job properly, it’s time to dig in to the work of dealing with people. It’s also time to rethink how you derive satisfaction from your work. Progress is measured in months, quarters and years. In some cases, you may never know if you had a positive effect. Nonetheless, the long-term results of rolling up your sleeves and taking on the tough tasks is priceless to you, your firm and to many that you positively impact along the way.

Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.