Dirt Handlers: Three Styles of Handling Problems

Dirt Handlers by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Robin Brown, Available at www.flickr.com

A couple weeks ago, I posted an article called Dirt! Hooray! The main point of that article was that an important leadership skill is the ability to celebrate and embrace problems. Leaders need to be able to embrace the so-called “dirt” they encounter and, with child-like energy, anticipate the great things that are to come with that dirt.

One of our LeadStrategic readers, Sarah, posted a comment to that article and the dialogue that ensued inspired this article. One question Sarah asked was, “So, why do so many leaders move all the dirt to their corner of the construction site, never to be touched, shaped, or formed by others?” Her word picture brought to mind a few leaders I know. In the same moment, I also considered how other leaders deal with dirt and I identified three kinds of dirt handlers: Pilers, Pushers, and Players.


“Pilers” are leaders who hide problems trying to keep themselves and others clean. This is the leadership equivalent of “sweeping dirt under the rug.” It is a foolish action because, of course, the dirt is still there. I know of an organization whose owner is a Piler. Let’s call him Perry. Perry Piler’s company had been profitable for many years — wildly profitable, and as part of a North American duopoly on a niche product, there seemed to be no end in sight. The sad thing is that dirt was (at first slowly, then quickly) piling up but Perry kept sweeping the dirt under the rug. Profits were eroding (the demand for the niche was slowly dropping). The tacit knowledge assets of the organization had not been passed on to future leaders. Only maintenance investment had been into physical infrastructure. There was absolutely no R&D effort or investment. I could go on and on.

For Perry Piler, and other Pilers like him, the elephant-in-the-room syndrome was strong. Perry knew that the lump under the rug had become a mound and it truly started to look as large as an elephant. The employees could see the lumpy rug, too. Unfortunately, Perry’s organizational culture did not welcome change, new ideas, or questions. It wasn’t until annual multi-million dollar profits eroded to virtually nothing that Perry Piler’s family finally stepped in to put a stop to the dirt piling.

In defense of Pilers, the positive side of piling is that the motivation of these leaders is often to protect others, but probably too much. My observation is that they do not want others to worry. They want others to enjoy their work, enjoy themselves, and enjoy who they work for. Unfortunately, dirt piling does not actually make the work place cleaner and no one likes to work in a dirty environment.


In a sense, “Pushers” are the opposite of Pilers. Instead of piling dirt in the corner or under the rug, Pushers push the dirt they encounter into others’ corners. While Pilers have a passive approach to dirt, Pushers are aggressive. They are not willing to sacrifice their clean, starched shirt and get dirty. Pushers also have a very high tendency to blame others, even for their own mistakes. In my experience, pushers are more likely to be young and/or inexperienced leaders. One Pusher I know illustrates this nicely. Let’s call him Peter. Peter Pusher is a very smart guy. He knows his company’s operations and business very well. Peter also has a great opportunity for personal and organizational success. His family-owned company (he is a third generation, part owner) enjoys a great reputation in the market they serve. However, the economy has taken its toll and their market is already very competitive. As many companies are currently doing in a down economy, they contracted a consulting team to help them streamline and focus. After the team’s analysis, Peter was presented with several operational inefficiencies, missed opportunities, and various improvement recommendations. Regarding each of these dirt piles, Peter responded with defensive reactions, blaming others for the noted problems, and criticizing recommendations as ineffective. Peter was also encourage to engage in personal leadership development to address his own dirt, as were all company leaders. However, Peter did not see how this would help when “the dirt belongs to others.”

What I’ve described here is an extreme case. However, subtle cases of Pushing can be confusing because, at some level, holding others accountable for their dirt is good! Distinguishing between true Pushing and hold others accountable can be difficult.


Finally, we have the “Players.” These leaders play in the dirt and embrace the mess, as my original article suggests they should. I know such a Player, and I’ll call him Paul. Paul Player is the owner of an upper midwest, regional US retailer. He and his company are highly regarded in his industry and he has unselfishly leveraged his personal and organizational success to benefit many other organizations, primarily Christian ministries and other non-profits. There are many reasons for Paul’s success, but I posit that one of the most important is his ability to see dirt, assess and describe it accurately, and not be afraid to engage it. He heartily invites others to play in the dirt with him, too. He has invited me on a few occasions and each time I find his “joy of dirt” to be contagious. His Player attitude communicates confidence, passion, and a sense of vision aimed at overtaking the dirt pile and using it for some wonderful landscaping and restructuring.

Paul does not pile dirt in the corner. In fact, he keeps it out in the open. I have even seen Paul carefully draw attention to dirt so that the organization can deal with it in an effective manner.

Paul does not push dirt into others’ corners. He recognizes his own contribution to the dirt pile and the portion of the pile for which he is responsible. When appropriate, he holds others accountable for their dirt and when necessary, he will play in the dirt with others until they can learn how to take responsibility for their own.

The downside of playing, though, is that some followers have low tolerance for the dirt. Leaders need to be sensitive to others’ tolerance levels and know the appropriate levels of piling and pushing, too! In some cases, Players need to invite those with low dirt tolerance to find a better fit in other organizations.

I am sure there are other kinds of dirt handlers. What have you seen? Which kind are you? Please let me know your thoughts.

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