John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Imagine a young boy 35 years ago in the eighth grade from a blue-collar family. His dad, a factory worker, taught him to love reading by reading comic books to him when he was very young.

Unfortunately, his dad can’t guide him to more advanced reading material. His eighth-grade teacher gives him a copy of Time magazine and tells him to read it cover to cover and look up every word he doesn’t don’t understand. He follows the teacher’s advice for the next 20 years. After even more time passes, as a successful professional, he realizes this small kindness opened new horizons to him and changed his life.

A college freshman discovers partying, her grades plummet, a threatening note comes from the dean and she goes to the counseling center where a counselor essentially adopts her.  He teaches her how to study, picks her courses for her, makes sure she has the best professors, and when she is a senior, coaches her on taking the Graduate Record Examination so she can get into graduate school with a 2.8 GPA. Years later, as a successful professional, she remembers how this person’s kindness altered her life but she cannot remember the person’s name.

These are real stories that were shared in organizational interviews. Asking people to tell their story occasionally produces such fascinating outcomes. What is to be learned from such stories?

First, the people who share such stories are usually over 50 and are successfully established in senior positions within their organizations. As they age, they have become more reflective and are able to review and identify small kindnesses that have essentially been done to them earlier in their lives. The impact of such events is unknowingly at the time a turning point in their lives.

Second, it is interesting to note these people are without exception natural leaders in their work worlds. This is important because recent work on leadership strongly suggests that throughout their lives leaders develop an internal story about themselves. It’s not an autobiography, but this story essentially defines who they are. They return to this story to guide their lives and make revisions in it from time to time as their lives change.

Having interviewed many people, I have noticed that some do not seem to have such a story. It is interesting to consider how their lives differ from those with a self-story.

Returning to the stories, another theme that seems to emerge in many is that these small kindnesses happened when person’s life was in a time of emotional turmoil. Leadership research often refers to such events as crucibles, an excellent choice of words. Such crucibles force us to re-examine our lives and take actions to improve ourselves. They also may alter our perceptions of the relative value of other people for the better. How do good people get through bad times, with the assistance of friends.

One final feature of these kindness events is that the person often took the initiative to ask for help. Many people never realize that if you ask for help, almost everyone will reach out to assist. This seems to be a common element in the lives of successful people. Successful people are really not self-made, but develop with the assistance of others. This type of process is one we now often refer to as mentoring and try to build in to high-performance organizations.

As you might predict, people who have benefited from such small kindnesses make an active effort to identify opportunities to carry out such kindnesses with others. This has the effect of improving the lives of both of the participants in such an interaction.

Psychologists note that human behavior is highly reciprocal – what you give is what you get. Interestingly, recent neuro-psychological research suggests people have “mirror” neurons in the brain. These neurons read and reflect the emotional state of the other person.  Thus, happiness and fear are neurologically contagious.

The small kindness effect illustrates this phenomenon and further demonstrates the oft-times long-range impact of such altruistic behavior.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.