It takes all of us to make the world go around

How the coronavirus has thrown a spotlight on our unsung heroes

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There is a famous story about a visit by President John F. Kennedy to the NASA space center in the early 1960s. When he noticed a janitor carrying a broom, he interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said: “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?” The janitor replied: “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Although probably apocryphal, this story is often used by self-help gurus to demonstrate the power of a team that pulls together to achieve a common goal. In such organizations, everyone matters, is valued, and included.

I often use a variation on the janitor theme to get this message across when I’m giving keynote speeches at conferences – or at least I used to, back in the days when we were able to gather in conference venues…

I dress up as a cleaner and generally get in the way of the delegates while they are having their welcome coffee. When it is time to usher the delegates into the conference room, I stand at the door with my vacuum cleaner, looking like I am trying to fix the door handle.

Getting the Message Across

Over the nine years I have been doing this, only one person has ever stopped and said: “May I help you?” Generally, everyone just pushes past – sometimes barging into me. On one occasion I even had somebody say to me: “You know you are in the way there, don’t you?” – before marching off.

It’s interesting to see the delegates’ faces when I later play back a recording of all this during my speech – it certainly gets across the message that everyone matters.

Ironically, I come from a long line of women cleaners. My grandmother was a below-stairs parlourmaid (think Downton Abbey) who wasn’t even allowed to be seen by the family or eat in the kitchen with the other servants. Her job was to scrub unseen and unacknowledged. And I was born in an unmarried mothers’ home where my mother was made to scrub the floors when she was nine months pregnant to make her realise the shame of the “mistake” she had made.

I often remember a phenomenal African American motivational speaker I saw in New York a few years ago. She called our attention to the fact that her great-grandmother was a slave – and that her mother and grandmother had both cleaned the rooms in the hotel we were staying in.  She described how they felt when they walked into a room that had been trashed – and how they reflected that individuals who left rooms like that probably did not do the same at home, where  someone would see who they really were. I guess we all have things to hide – many of us that day shuffled around as we remembered the towel we had left on the floor.

Time to Stop and Think

Today, the coronavirus has thrown a spotlight on the valuable work done every day by the people who are sterilizing our handrails, mopping our floors, cleaning our telephones, and generally keeping our environment as spotless as possible. They are playing a vital role in keeping us all safe – and we have suddenly seen an outpouring of gratitude towards them on social media.

I’m hoping that at the end of this nightmare we will all stop to think about who we acknowledge, who we thank, and who we are grateful for knowing. I hope we recognize that we are all one humanity. Whether you’re standing on the stage or serving the coffee, it takes all of us to make the world go around.

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