Friday, November 20, 2015

How to Touch as Many Lives as Mother Teresa

Though it came out in 1986, I still remember a moment while watching Mother Teresa’s eponymous documentary. In this one she is in an orphanage taking care of abandoned children. One child is in the fetal position in what appears to be a state of catatonia. She rubs his arms and legs and through that simple human touch, he eventually begins to soften and extend his limbs.

Mostly what you hear around this scene are background noises, crying children, the hustle and bustle of her and her Sisters of Charity caring for them. Suddenly in a voice-over you here her say, “Small things with great love. It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing.” It grabbed me then and 30 years later it is still a vivid memory.

These opportunities for “small things” are everywhere and the ripples from these actions can be surprising.  Three short stories underline this point.

A retiring, wannabe poet Ruth Lilly, an heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune died at 87 and left $100MM to the oldest and most respected journal of verse in the US…Poetry Magazine… This is a magazine that at times has had only $100 in the bank. But that gift turned it, overnight, into the Fort Knox of the Arts world.

The reason for her bequest appears to be the kindness with which editor Joseph Parisi rejected several poems she submitted to the magazine in the 70’s. A lot of love must have been put into those small, handwritten rejection notes because not only did she not curse him or the organization…the usual reaction…she blessed them.

A few years ago, a client of mine was working in company with a rep for having a very tough, performance driven culture. A junior lawyer approved a feature that the company was essentially under a governmental agreement not to offer and continued to advise on it through the building of the offering. There was a small argument for how this situation was different from what had been agreed to, but it was weak at best. This was really an open and shut issue. This junior lawyer had whiffed and the feature had to be pulled after it had already been developed.

The director a couple of levels above the approving lawyer led the review of the issue. He allowed the attorney and her boss to make their case. The director asked a lot of questions and was very deliberate, he never once let this employee or her manager feel their lawyering or attention to detail were subpar. The director even wrote the email to the lawyer’s clients and positioned the issue as not something that was legally prohibited (though it was) but something that would make the company look bad if released.

It is hard to fully convey the care with which the director handled not only the issue but the employee who made the error. Not only did she not get fired which was the norm at that company, he allowed her to save face in multiple ways and at multiple junctures and she stayed on and became a successful lawyer in the company. It was a teaching moment for everyone involved, including my client, on how little things can make an enormous difference in people’s lives and also on the power of putting people in front of short-term outcomes.

Now obviously I am not advocating looking the other way every time something goes wrong. If this became a pattern with this employee, it would have to be handled differently.
But as a leader it is worth asking are you giving your employees enough second chances. Are you allowing them to save face and maintain their confidence? Athletes and coaches know what a difference it makes when a player is playing with confidence, but I don’t think very many managers got the memo.

Finally, I was on an early morning flight recently and a flight attendant was coming down the aisle picking up the trash. It is a practice of mine to try to look service people I interact with in the eye and see them as a person with a beating human heart vs. seeing them as a transactional, means to an end.
As she walked by, I just looked up at her, smiled, and said, “Good morning.” Her countenance visibly softened and her shoulders came out of her ears where they looked like they had taken up permanent residence. She touched my shoulder and said, “Thank you for noticing it is morning and that I am a person.”

Mother Teresa also said there is more hunger in this world for love and appreciation than there is for bread. And in this way, you too can directly touch hundreds of lives each day.

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