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.
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.
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
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
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.