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A Janitor's Ten Lessons in Leadership
William "Bill" Crawford certainly was an unimpressive figure, one you could easily overlook during a hectic day at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Mr. Crawford, as most of us referred to him back in the late 1970s, was our squadron janitor.
While we cadets busied ourselves preparing for academic exams, athletic events, Saturday morning parades and room inspections, or never-ending leadership classes, Bill quietly moved about the squadron mopping and buffing floors, emptying trash cans, cleaning toilets, or just tidying up the mess 100 college- age kids can leave in a dormitory.
Sadly, and for many years, few of us gave him much notice, rendering little more than a passing nod or throwing a curt, "G'morning!" in his direction as we hurried off to our daily duties.
Why? Perhaps it was because of the way he did his job-he always kept the squadron area spotlessly clean, even the toilets and showers gleamed. Frankly, he did his job so well, none of us had to notice or get involved. After all, cleaning toilets was his job, not ours.
Maybe it was his physical appearance that made him disappear into the background. Bill didn't move very quickly and, in fact, you could say he even shuffled a bit, as if he suffered from some sort of injury. His gray hair and wrinkled face made him appear ancient to a group of young cadets. And his crooked smile, well, it looked a little funny. Face it, Bill was an old man working in a young person's world. What did he have to offer us on a personal level?
Finally, maybe it was Mr. Crawford's personality that rendered him almost invisible to the young people around him. Bill was shy, almost painfully so. He seldom spoke to a cadet unless they addressed him first, and that didn't happen very often. Our janitor always buried himself in his work, moving about with stooped shoulders, a quiet gait, and an averted gaze. If he noticed the hustle and bustle of cadet life around him, it was hard to tell.
So, for whatever reason, Bill blended into the woodwork and became just another fixture around the squadron. The Academy, one of our nation's premier leadership laboratories, kept us busy from dawn till dusk. And Mr. Crawford... well, he was just a janitor.
That changed one fall Saturday afternoon in 1976. I was reading a book about World War II and the tough Allied ground campaign in Italy, when I stumbled across an incredible story. On Sept. 13, 1943, a Private William Crawford from Colorado, assigned to the 36th Infantry Division, had been involved in some bloody fighting on Hill 424 near Altavilla, Italy.
The words on the page leapt out at me: "in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire ... with no regard for personal safety ... on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions." It continued, "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States ..."
"Holy cow," I said to my roommate, "you're not going to believe this, but I think our janitor is a Medal of Honor winner." We all knew Mr. Crawford was a WWII Army vet, but that didn't keep my friend from looking at me as if I was some sort of alien being. Nonetheless, we couldn't wait to ask Bill about the story on Monday.
We met Mr. Crawford bright and early Monday and showed him the page in question from the book, anticipation and doubt on our faces. He starred at it for a few silent moments and then quietly uttered something like, "Yep, that's me."
Mouths agape, my roommate and I looked at one another, then at the book, and quickly back at our janitor. Almost at once we both stuttered, "Why didn't you ever tell us about it?" He slowly replied after some thought, "That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago."
I guess we were all at a loss for words after that. We had to hurry off to class and Bill, well, he had chores to attend to. However, after that brief exchange, things were never again the same around our squadron. Word spread like wildfire among the cadets that we had a hero in our midst - Mr. Crawford, our janitor, had won the Medal!
Cadets who had once passed by Bill with hardly a glance, now greeted him with a smile and a respectful, "Good morning, Mr. Crawford." Those who had before left a mess for the "janitor" to clean up started taking it upon themselves to put things in order. Most cadets routinely stopped to talk to Bill throughout the day and we even began inviting him to our formal squadron functions. He'd show up dressed in a conservative dark suit and quietly talk to those who approached him, the only sign of his heroics being a simple blue, star-spangled lapel pin. Almost overnight, Bill went from being a simple fixture in our squadron to one of our teammates.
Mr. Crawford changed too, but you had to look closely to notice the difference. After that fall day in 1976, he seemed to move with more purpose, his shoulders didn't seem to be as stooped, he met our greetings with a direct gaze and a stronger "good morning" in return, and he flashed his crooked smile more often.
The squadron gleamed as always, but everyone now seemed to notice it more. Bill even got to know most of us by our first names, something that didn't happen often at the Academy. While no one ever formally acknowledged the change, I think we became Bill's cadets and his squadron.
As often happens in life, events sweep us away from those in our past. The last time I saw Bill was on graduation day in June 1977. As I walked out of the squadron for the last time, he shook my hand and simply said, "Good luck, young man."
With that, I embarked on a career that has been truly lucky and blessed. Mr. Crawford continued to work at the Academy and eventually retired in his native Colorado where he resides today, one of four Medal of Honor winners living in a small town.
A wise person once said, "It's not life that's important, but those you meet along the way that make the difference." Bill was one who made a difference for me. While I haven't seen Mr. Crawford in over twenty years, he'd probably be surprised to know I think of him often. Bill Crawford, our janitor, taught me many valuable, unforgettable leadership lessons. Here are ten I'd like to share with you.
Bill Crawford was a janitor. However, he was also a teacher, friend, role model and one great American hero.
Thanks, Mr. Crawford, for some valuable leadership lessons.
Many more articles in Mission Ready in The CEO Refresher Archives