Why Leaders Should Put Their Shopping Cart Back

I was shopping at Target the other day for who-knows-what and was heading back to my car through the parking lot. Walking along a sidewalk in front of a row of cars, I looked ahead and saw a person putting the last of their bags in the car. They shut the door and proceeded to push the shopping cart up onto the sidewalk where I was walking and simply leave it there. As the person’s hands let go of the cart, and with an awkward smile, they looked over at me, now being only ten feet away, and realized the cart had completely blocked my path. I felt almost invisible.

I’d have to move it or walk into the street to get around it.

Without any further pause, they walked around the car and got in. When I reached the cart, I made deliberate eye contact with the person, spun the cart around and put it in the cart return that was sitting (Are you ready for this?) …on the other side of their car, where they had just climbed in. They were parked right next to it the cart corral.

This person may have been in a hurry, it’s true; but aside from the annoying placement in this specific encounter, the act of leaving shopping carts in random places instead of putting them back is commonplace. Everyone’s seen it, and I’m willing to bet, nearly everyone’s done it.

The Shopping Cart of Leadership

The shopping cart represents a problem that can be easily pawned off on someone else. It’s not a purposeful delegation, it’s a mindset of leaving work unfinished. Finding a cart corral represents extra work that takes away from whatever else you want or need to do. This is, by definition, called laziness.

Those who have little to no ambition to move up and lead a group or organization may be expected to “put their shopping cart away”, but it won’t necessarily happen. They may cut a few corners to make their work a little easier. Likewise, those who have ambition but lack the requisite self-awareness will probably exhibit this trait.

Leaders have to see it differently for multiple reasons. Leaders must be purposeful, even if they don’t take care of every task themselves. This is the difference between actively delegating and passively avoiding.

Here are three important areas where this makes a difference:

  1. Developing others. As a leader, you are responsible to others. For those who are looking to you to develop their leadership skills, you must show them that follow-through and planning is necessary. When faced with what seems like a trivial task, it’s necessary to plan for that task’s completion; delegating engages others to complete tasks in their own way. You retrieved and used the cart, so make sure it is put away properly. When it comes to hitting deadlines, focusing on the details gets better results too. You should bear in mind that not everyone on your team is a high-potential employee. Some people aren’t looking to develop their skills necessarily, but they are looking to the leader to see what they can get away with themselves.
  2. Developing habits. Completing these types of task can get annoying. They get in the way of more pressing tasks, they happen infrequently enough to feel insignificant, or a combination of both. Our brains don’t like spending energy on the irregular minutiae because it gets in the way of mindless habits. The more you feed those habits, the worse they become. The act of passively avoiding responsibility of tasks is likely more widespread than just work. What else do you avoid doing and why? Begin by looking into why you avoid these tasks, so that you don’t erroneously classify yourself as “lazy” in areas where you could be avoiding a weak ability or masking a problem. Look also at what is influencing your decision to avoid such tasks. By adding context to the bad habit, you will likely see one or more sources that you can address.
  3. Developing balance. There is a risk in focusing too heavily on details and including yourself in everything (i.e. not delegating enough). By analyzing where you are cutting corners, you have the opportunity to build self-awareness. This is where you can develop a different strength, called a “positive opposite”, that complements the desirable strength, in this case, of delegating. A aspect to leadership is ultimately to empower and develop others to be leaders. If you lack self-awareness, you’ll train weaknesses into others, giving them permission to ignore their own. Imagine arriving at a parking lot filled with shopping carts everywhere. Would you shop at that store anymore? By increasing your self-awareness, you provide yourself a continuum to move along when encountering new situations and new people. Effective leaders are complex and so should be their supply of strengths.

For those that never took care of their shopping carts, how well can they accurately assign that same type of task when it’s necessary? Whether you already have the authority or not, start now by taking care of the little things to build the habit and knowledge. Eventually, when you’re in the position to delegate appropriately and skillfully, you’ll understand the important dynamics of those details and you’ll be better equipped at delegating them properly, or taking care of them yourself.

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Philip Clark

Philip Clark is a former business consultant who currently writes about where leadership meets psychology. On occasion he mixes in education and social impact, aiming to improve the world one person at a time. Earning his degree in Psychology and an MBA from the College of William & Mary, he offers insight into looking past a standard checklist life by digging into what makes you tick and then improving it.