Last Updated on June 29, 2022 by OCF Communications

William Crawford was an unimpressive figure, one you could easily overlook during a hectic day at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Mr. Crawford was our squadron janitor.

While we cadets busied ourselves preparing for academic exams, athletic events, Saturday morning parades, and room inspections-or never-ending leadership classes-Bill quietly moved about mopping and buffing floors, cleaning toilets, or just tidying up the mess 100 college-age kids can leave in a dormitory.

For many years, few of us gave him much notice, rendering little more than a passing nod or throwing a curt, “G’morning” in his direction as we hurried off. Why? Perhaps it was because of the way he did his job, always keeping the squadron area spotlessly clean. Frankly, he did his job so well, none of us had to notice or get involved. After all, cleaning toilets was his job, not ours.

Maybe it was his physical appearance that made him disappear. Bill didn’t move very quickly and even shuffled a bit, as if he suffered from some sort of injury. Bill was an old man working in a young person’s world. What did he have to offer us on a personal level?

Editor’s note: The original article, Lessons in Leadership From a Janitor, appeared in the Wharton Leadership Digest, December 2001, and in On Patrol, fall 2010. This article is adapted from On Patrol and is reprinted with permission.

Bill was shy, almost painfully so, seldom speaking to a cadet unless they addressed him first, always burying himself in his work. The Academy, one of our nation’s premier leadership laboratories, kept us busy from dawn till dusk. And Mr. Crawford…well, he was just a janitor.

That changed one fall Saturday afternoon. I was reading a book about World War II and the tough Allied ground campaign in Italy, when I stumbled across an incredible story.

William Crawford “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire…with no regard for personal safety…on his own initiative…single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions. …for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States…”

“Holy cow,” I said to my roommate, “I think our janitor is a Medal of Honor recipient.”

We couldn’t wait to ask Bill about the story.

We met Mr. Crawford bright and early Monday and showed him the page from the book. He stared at it for a few silent moments and then quietly uttered something like, “Yep, that’s me.” Mouths agape, my roommate and I both stuttered, “Why didn’t you ever tell us about it?”

He slowly replied after some thought, “That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago.”

Things were never again the same around our squadron. Word spread like wildfire among the cadets that we had a hero in our midst—Mr. Crawford, our janitor, had been bestowed the Medal! Cadets who had once passed by Bill with hardly a glance, now greeted him with a smile and a respectful, “Good morning, Mr. Crawford.”

Cadets who had once passed by Bill with hardly a glance, now greeted him with a smile and a respectful, “Good morning, Mr. Crawford.”

Those who had before left a mess for the “janitor” to clean up, started taking it upon themselves to put things in order. Almost overnight, Bill went from being a simple fixture in our squadron to one of our teammates.

Mr. Crawford changed too, seeming to move with more purpose, his shoulders not as stooped, meeting our greetings with a direct gaze and a stronger “good morning” in return, and flashing his crooked smile more often. While no one ever formally acknowledged the change, I think we became Bill’s cadets and his squadron.

A wise person once said, “It’s not life that’s important, but those you meet along the way that make the difference.”

Those who had before left a mess for the “janitor” to clean up, started taking it upon themselves to put things in order. Almost overnight, Bill went from being a simple fixture in our squadron to one of our teammates.

Bill Crawford, our janitor, taught me many valuable, unforgettable leadership lessons. Here are 10 to live by:

  1. Be Cautious of Labels. Labels you place on people may define your relationship to them and bind their potential. We labeled Bill as just a janitor, but he was so much more. Therefore, be cautious of a leader who callously says, “Hey, he’s just an Airman.”
  2. Everyone Deserves Respect. Because we hung the “janitor” label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others. He deserved much more, and not just because he received the Medal of Honor. Bill deserved respect because he walked among us and was a part of our team.
  3. Courtesy Makes a Difference. Be courteous to all around you, regardless of rank or position. Military customs, as well as common courtesies, help bond a team. When our daily words to Mr. Crawford turned from perfunctory to heartfelt, his demeanor and personality outwardly changed.
  4. Take Time to Know Your People. Life in the military is hectic, but that’s no excuse for not knowing the people you work for and with. Who are the heroes that walk in your midst?
  5. Anyone Can Be a Hero. Mr. Crawford was a private the day he earned his Medal. Don’t sell your people short. Today’s rookie could and should be tomorrow’s superstar.
  6. Leaders Should Be Humble. Most modern-day heroes and some leaders are anything but humble. Mr. Crawford was too busy working to celebrate his past heroics. Leaders would be well served to do the same.
  7. Life Won’t Always Hand You What You Think You Deserve. We in the military work hard and we deserve recognition, right? Sometimes you just have to persevere, even when accolades don’t come your way. Don’t pursue glory; pursue excellence. Bill Crawford did his duty and then swept floors for a living.
  8. No Job is Beneath a Leader. If a Medal of Honor recipient could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it.
  9. Pursue Excellence. No matter what task life hands you, do it well. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If life makes you a street sweeper, be the best street sweeper you can be.”
  10. Life is a Leadership Laboratory. Too often we look to some school or class to teach us about leadership when, in fact, life is a leadership laboratory. Those you meet every day will teach you enduring lessons if you just take time to stop, look, and listen. Don’t miss your opportunity to learn.
William Crawford, a Medal of Honor recipient for his heroic actions during World War II, retired from the Army and worked as a janitor at the U.S. Air Force Academy so that he could remain close to the military. He passed away in 2000.

Jim is the deputy commandant, National Security Space Institute, Peterson AFB, Colorado. He and his wife, Becky, have four children.