Guest Columns

Leadership lessons from cleaning ladies

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Joseph DeMattos Jr., President of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland
Joseph DeMattos Jr., President of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland

 

Effective leaders leave powerful clues. During the course of my career, I have worked closely with leaders in national and local government, leaders in scholarship and industry, military leaders, and those who blended business knowledge with their passion for serving by running of not-for profit enterprises.

And I've worked with everyday folk, people who would never call themselves leaders, but who in fact were tremendously effective leaders. Three of these leaders were cleaning ladies, not maids; janitors and cleaning ladies.

Adelaide Keanuenueokalaninuiamamao "Frenchy" DeSoto was one of those cleaning ladies from whom I learned so very much. I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't know of the name Frenchy DeSoto. In my experience, she was among a handful of leaders of Hawai'i on the Leeward Coast of O'ahu.

I first worked with and learned from Frenchy as a member of the City and County of Honolulu Neighborhood Board for our area. By that time, she was already a fully established leader, and an anointer of future leaders.

In Hawai'i Frenchy is best known as a delegate to the 1978 State Constitutional Convention and a leader in establishing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. She helped to create, for the first time since the monarchy, a legitimate and funded means by which the native peoples of Hawai'I could express some measure of self-determination and political power.

As Frenchy moved from community leader and activist to elected leader and king maker, her day job was as a janitor at the Hawai'I State Capitol. Think about that.

The number one thing I learned from Frenchy was steadfastness, the ‘oleo Hawai'i word for this, ‘onipa'a. I learned as a young political leader to always ask my kūpuna, my elders, for advice. And I learned that complaining to elders like Frenchy was senseless, as she would just smile and advise on any problem, “Ask other people what they think, ask for their help, find another way, and don't give up.”

Cindy was also a janitor at the State Capitol. She cleaned my and other offices when I worked on the Executive Chamber staff of then Hawai'i Governor John Waihee. Cindy's positive attitude, her dedication to doing the best job possible, whether it was to empty somebody's trash or to scrub their bathroom, was truly amazing. Cindy was deeply and truthfully dedicated to and thankful for her job. I remember I used to so very much look forward to talking with her at the end of each day.

Cindy was value driven and disciplined in the broader sense. I remember that Cindy would only buy her lunch on paydays. Out of twenty work days in the month, Cindy would treat herself to lunch only two of them; the remaining days saving and investing her lunch money for the good of her family.

Cindy taught me that leaders are value driven, disciplined, and work to bring joy to all their work—most especially working with joy on the difficult stuff.

The last cleaning lady who inspired me is the most complicated one, my mom. Looking back as an executive, I am so thankful that my mom was a cleaning lady. Looking back, if I have any success today it is because of all the joy and pain I experienced growing up with my family and with great mentors, formal and otherwise.

We grew up as a Portuguese family in a culturally rich and economically poor rural community in which the native people of Hawai'i were the dominant group. The Waianae community of great leaders such as Speaker Henry Peters, Trustee Frenchy DeSoto, Senate President James Aki, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa and rancher Albert Silva.

My mom cleaned the homes of rich families on the far eastern side of O'ahu.  Her work was outstanding and she was massively dependable to the families who hired her. Interestingly, the people she worked for were also very kind to me and my kid brother. We were “the help's” sons, but for my part, I never felt that way.

The number one most important positive lesson I learned from my mom, the leader, was to “never give up.”

Making a great effort was not acceptable to my mom. Quitting was not acceptable to my mom. Success was measured in outcomes not process. You either cleaned thoroughly, or not. You either finished the job, or not. And not finishing was not an option.

It's difficult for me to write or to talk about myself, doing so is counter to my Hawai'i and Japanese cultural upbringing. However, if because of my education, work, and community leadership, I have achieved some success and made some difference, it is because of lessons I learned along the way from many.

Today I thank Frenchy, Cindy, and Mom, the cleaning ladies in my life for teaching me steadfastness, the importance of being driven by governing values, how to be a servant leader with joy and gratitude, and to focus on outcomes and never to give up.

 Joseph DeMattos is the President and CEO of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland.

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