Kindness Works

It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell is a collection of lessons learned and anecdotes drawn from his life. He includes his 13 Rules of Leadership. I enjoyed reading his memoir. Powell points out that each person is valuable to an organization and that value should be recognized. Below is an excerpt from the book.

Kindness WorksIt Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership

Many years ago I was the warden — the senior lay person — of a small suburban Episcopal church in northern Virginia. During that time our bishop assigned to our parish an elderly priest to serve as an assistant pastor. The priest was in some kind of personal distress and needed a parish home. I never knew the nature of his problem. Whatever it was, we were pleased to take him in. We welcomed him into the church family, treated him as one of us, and ministered to him, just as we ministered to each other. Nobody asked about his problem or pried into his life.

He was with us for a year. On his last Sunday he was assigned to give the sermon. I listened to it in my usual proper Episcopalian position, right rear of the church. I’m sure it was a good sermon, but one sentence hit me with special force and has remained with me for four decades. At the end of the sermon, the priest looked over the congregation and with a smile on his face quietly concluded: “Always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.”

He was talking about himself, of course. The lesson was clear: Don’t just show kindness in passing or to be courteous. Show it in depth, show it with passion, and expect nothing in return. Kindness is not just about being nice; it’s about recognizing another human being who deserves care and respect.

Much later, when I was Secretary of State, I slipped away one day from my beautiful office suite and vigilant security agents and snuck down to the garage. The garage is run by contract employees, most of them immigrants and minorities making only a few dollars above minimum wage.

The garage is too small for all the employees’ cars. The challenge every morning is to pack them all in. The attendants’ system is to stack cars one behind the other, so densely packed that there’s no room to maneuver. Since number three can’t get out until number one and two have left, the evening rush hour is chaos if the lead cars don’t exit the garage on time. Inevitably a lot of impatient people have to stand around waiting their turn.

The attendants had never seen a Secretary wandering around the garage before; they thought I was lost. (That may have been true by then, but I’d never admit it.) They asked if I needed help
getting back “home.”

“No,” I answered. “I just want to look around and chat with you.” They were surprised, but pleased. I asked about the job, where they were from, were there problems with carbon monoxide, and similar small talk. They assured me everything was fine, and we all relaxed and chatted away.

After a while I asked a question that had puzzled me: “When the cars come in every morning, how do you decide who ends up first to get out, and who ends up second and third?”

They gave each other knowing looks and little smiles. “Mr. Secretary,” one of them said, “it kinda goes like this. When you drive in, if you lower the window, look out, smile, and you know our name, or you say ‘Good morning, how are you?’ or something like that, you’re number one to get out. But if you just look straight ahead and don’t show you even see us or that we are doing something for you, well, you are likely to be one of the last to get out.”

I thanked them, smiled, and made my way back to where I had abandoned my now distraught bodyguard.

At my next staff meeting, I shared this story with my senior leaders. “You can never err by treating everyone in the building with respect, thoughtfulness, and a kind word,” I told them. “Everyone of our employees is an essential employee. Everyone of them wants to be viewed that way. And if you treat them that way, they will view you that way. They will not let you down or let you fail. They will accomplish whatever you have put in front of them.”

It ain’t brain surgery. Every person in an organization has value and wants that value to be recognized. Every human being needs appreciation and reinforcement. The person who came to clean my office each night was no less a person than the President, a general, or a cabinet member. They deserved and got from me a thank-you, a kind word, an inquiry that let him or her know their value. I wanted them to know they weren’t just janitors. I couldn’t do my job without them, and the department relied on them. There are no trivial jobs in any successful organization. But there are all too many trivial leaders who don’t understand this oh so simple and easy to apply principle.


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