An interesting story I recently read clearly demonstrates that you never know who you’re talking to. The story proved that you can be fooled by their position or demeanor and underestimate a person’s significance.
The story took place at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the late 1970s. William “Bill” Crawford was the janitor in one of the dormitories that housed 100 cadets. None of the cadets knew Crawford’s name because he was “just” the janitor.
When you look at pecking orders, they were students at one of the most prestigious colleges in the U.S. and, well, Crawford wasn’t the most important blip on their academic radar screen.
Maybe it was partly Crawford’s fault because he was described as shy and withdrawn, never speaking to the cadets unless he was spoken to. He probably also felt the pressure of the pecking order. He went about his duties slowly, almost seeming to shuffle along as if battling an old injury.
One day, a cadet was reading a book on Congressional Medal of Honor winners. This represents the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government, usually reserved for those who have performed their duties at their own risk, above and beyond the call of duty, while engaged in an action against the enemy. Out of the millions who have served in the U.S. armed services since the Civil War, only 3,468 medals have been awarded.
As the cadet was thumbing through the book, he came across a winner by the name of Pvt. William Crawford, a soldier who was involved in bloody action on Hill 424 near Altavilla, Italy, on Sept. 13, 1943. While his platoon was pinned down, Crawford single-handedly took out at least three machine gun nests on separate occasions under intense enemy fire.
After his platoon advanced because of his actions, he volunteered to stay behind to take care of a wounded soldier and was captured by the Germans. He spent 19 months in a Nazi prison camp before being released.
The cadet wondered if the man in the book was the janitor and approached him about his findings. Crawford humbly confirmed the story, saying, “That was one day in my life, and it happened long ago.”
As word spread among the cadets that their janitor was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, they began treating him and greeting him in a different manner. Crawford got to know many of the cadets by their first names because they engaged him in conversation. The cadets were also more attentive to keeping their dormitory cleaner, and the messes they would have normally left for the janitor to clean up started diminishing.
This story presents important lessons for EMS managers. First, we have tendency to label people. For example, we think because someone is “just” a janitor that their job is insignificant and takes little education, when in reality, the janitor in your organization plays an important role. Visitors will judge your organization’s level of professionalism by its appearance when they walk into your facilities. If the janitor has done their job well, the facilities will look professional.
If your facilities are messy with dirty floors, overflowing wastebaskets and filthy bathrooms, it sends an immediate message that your EMS organization has little regard for the manner in which it operates.
Second, everyone deserves some type of respect. Don’t treat someone as just the “janitor.” All employees, from the top of the organization all the way down to the bottom, deserve your respect. They’re part of your team, and your success depends on their performance.
As an EMS manager, you need to be courteous to all your employees and everyone you meet in the performance of your job. As the old saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” The cadet who relayed the story about Crawford said that when the mundane greetings from cadets turned into enthusiastic hellos, Crawford stepped up his job performance and took more pride in his work. Your employees might do the same.
Also remember that we’re never above doing any job. If a Congressional Medal of Honor winner can clean toilets and bathrooms, EMS managers should never think some task or job is beneath them.
Many more leadership lessons can be gleaned from the Bill Crawford story, but the main one is that you never know who you’re speaking to or dealing with. Treat every patient you encounter—and your fellow employees—with respect.
This article originally appeared in November 2010 JEMS as “Clean Up Your Act: Every patient you encounter deserves respect.”