My co-founder called me a few days after we sold our startup for $45 million. But I was busy. I missed the call.

I was taking out the trash.

Maybe you're the founder of a growing startup. Maybe you're the CEO of a major company. Or maybe you're struggling to get your idea off the ground. Either way, you have big things to do, critical decisions to make, key duties to perform.

Conventional wisdom says the stakes are too high for you to spend time performing relatively mundane tasks. That's what delegating is for. That's what outsourcing is for.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. Just because you're the boss doesn't mean you're exempt from smaller, less pleasant tasks. That's why I was taking out the trash. It's part of my job. And I'll keep doing it. Without talking about it.

Say there's a piece of paper on the floor; when that happens, there are two types of leaders:

  1. The person who spots the trash, stops, looks around, strides quickly over to snatch it up, ball it up, and slam it into a trash can like LeBron James finishing a fast break. Sure, he's cleaning up -- but he's also making a statement.
  2. The person who veers over without breaking stride, picks up the piece of paper, gently folds it up, sticks it in his pocket and keeps on talking. She's not making a statement or putting on a show. She's not thinking about it at all -- she's just doing it.

Either way, employees notice. When you're in charge, everyone watches what you do. What matters is not just what you do, but how you do what you do -- and what that says about you.

What am I saying when I take out the trash? That it's my job. That I will do it well, because every job is worth doing well. And most importantly, that we are a team.

The smaller the company, the more important it is that your employees can quickly adapt to changing priorities. That they can think on their feet. That they can sometimes step in and lead -- and other times step back and follow. That they can and will do whatever it takes, regardless of role or position, to get things done.

Who sets that example? You.

Try it. Start doing one or two tasks no one else wants to do.

If you're emptying your trash can, swing by other people's desks and collect theirs on the way to the dumpster. Don't put up a sign reminding employees to keep the break area clean; tidy it up yourself. Take packages to the post office on your way home. Sweep up the back office.

Pick a few things that someone has to do and make those tasks your own.

But don't talk about it -- just do it.

Your employees will notice. They'll start doing a few things no one else wants to do.

In the process, you'll build a stronger team -- and be a better leader.

Because the best leaders focus on go, not show.

Published on: Dec 19, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.