Q: Hello Audrey. A warm welcome to you. Thank you for joining us today.
AL: Hello. Thank you for having me. It’s such an honour to be here.
Q: Audrey, my first question to you is about small acts of kindness. You know, a kind stranger can pay for your coffee and you can pay it forward. All these things can bring a smile to your face for a short period, but how exactly can these things save the world or how can they transform humanity?
AL: That’s a great question. I’m just
touched to be here and happy to have this conversation with you. A lot of
people think kindness is a sweet thing. It’s really cute, it’s heart-warming,
but maybe it’s not that serious. When push comes to shove and you must get
things done, you don’t necessarily always go with the kinder act. So, this
question of, “Can kindness really make an impact or change the world in some
way?” is a good question. It’s up for grabs. A story that comes to mind is one
I heard a few years back. Hugo Diaz is a social worker in New York City, and
one day he is taking a train home and he gets off a stop before his usual
stop; he is going to a diner to have dinner, and then he’ll go home.
When he is walking towards the exit of the subway, a young teenager points a knife at him and says, “Give me your wallet.”
Hugo stops, takes out his wallet and hands it over. The teenager starts to run away, and Hugo calls out “Hey, it’s a cold night. You want my jacket too?” The teenager stops, thinking, “In robbery 101 they didn’t tell you what to do when the person you’re robbing wants to offer you something else!” He turns around and says, “Yeah, I’ll take your jacket.”
So, Hugo takes off his jacket and gives it to him, saying, “You know, I’m actually going to get some dinner. Would you like to join me? I’m going to go to this diner.” The teenager is just dumbfounded. And he decides, “This guy seems kind of nice. Maybe I’ll just follow him and see where he goes.”
So, they go to the diner. Now, Hugo goes to this diner often, so when he gets there, the waiting staff, the owners, the cooks all know him, and they’re like, “Hi Hugo, how are you doing?” He sits down, and the teenager asks, “How does everyone know you? Who are you?”
So Hugo says, “I come here a lot.” They order dinner and have a nice meal. At the end of the meal, they get the bill and Hugo says, “I’d love to treat you to this dinner, but you have my wallet.”
The teenager takes out the wallet from his pocket, and slides it across the table to him.
Then Hugo says, “You know, I’d love for you to give me something else too. I’d love for you to give me your knife.”
And the teenager takes out his knife and slides it across the table to him also.
What really struck me about this story is that it wasn’t just how he reacted in that moment. It is all the moments beforehand that build up to who you are in every moment. He works as a social worker, so he probably has experience with a lot of youth who are in difficult environments. And judging by how the diner people welcomed him, he’s probably a nice guy. And so, I think the question really comes down to this: We think about how to change the world, how to make a difference, how to end poverty, how to resolve education, how to create more equity in the world. Those are big questions, but I think there is something that comes up in that moment, when a teenager slides a knife across the table, saying, I don’t want to be the person who has to rob people. I want to be the person who can treat people to a meal.
You can’t plan for a thing like that. I think you cultivate habits that become your natural response. So, when someone comes to you with violence, with force, with power, with a knife, your neural pathways are wired in such a way that you think, “Oh, that kid looks cold, let me give him my jacket too.” The power of that is hard to define, but if we all do these small acts and practices, and transform ourselves along the way, what does that look like at scale? One of our volunteers once said, “What if we had a critical mass of gentleness? All of us are really looking for a gentler world, and we’re all practicing that in our own way. And what if it ripples out and, at some point, there is a critical mass of gentleness. What would that look like?”
Q: Kindness is a powerful weapon, isn’t it? It makes us feel that everything is connected to everything else. Every act of kindness is probably connected to every other soul. That story touched my heart. Which leads to the next question: How does a culture of compassion work in practical terms? For example, when an organization needs to look at the economic cost of kindness and compassion, it appears to be a little bit complicated. How can we sustain this principle? How can our economies and cultures, which are already based on capitalism and consumerism, use this as a guiding force? How can a profit-based ecosystem thrive with this kind of culture?
AL: In our market economy, we are conditioned to focus on developing a product. In a company, it’s on developing a product. In a non-profit or NGO, it’s on delivering an impact. And everything is packaged in a way that it can be shared and exchanged in the world. We have spent a lot of time innovating for efficiency and we have lost the resiliency of relationships along the way.
Many people feel this way in their workplaces, where they’re just a cog in the machine, working that way. You never know, the person next to you might have a family member who’s struggling with cancer, or someone disappears one day and you find out they had a death in the family and they’re on leave for two weeks. There’s something efficient about just focusing on designing a product, but there’s something lost in not taking the time to really get to know who you’re working with. Or not having the structure or the space to engage in that interconnection.
A big part of it is that a shift is needed. Instead of only asking, “What can I do?” “What output can I create in the world?” and “What product can I make?” also ask, “Who can I be?” “How do I become that person who knows that my colleague in the cubicle in the corner is really having a rough time?” and “Who do I have to be to receive someone’s trust, to share those kinds of stories?” and “How might the interactions I have with people change the way our organization runs?” It’s an open question.
I think one of the examples that comes to mind is Karma Kitchen, which is one of our experiments in generosity. It’s a chain of “pay it forward” restaurants in different cities around the world. You go into a restaurant, you get a menu, and you realize there are no prices on the menu. You learn that your meal is being gifted to you by the people who came before. You can enjoy your meal, you can have seconds, you can have thirds. You realize that the people serving you are volunteers who have other day jobs, and other things that they do in life, but they chose to spend the day volunteering, to wait on you. At the end of the meal, you get a bill that reads $0. You’re invited to pay whatever you wish toward the next person’s meal. It’s an experiment in the chain of giving. And it’s an invitation to tap into someone who came before you or someone who’s coming after you whom you have not met before.
There was one time we were volunteering, and we had a volunteer orientation in the beginning and a closing meal together at the end to share reflections. And there was one volunteer who spent the day with us, who shared a reflection. She worked at a restaurant, so she was used to doing this for her day job, but what she found was a complete 180-degree shift. When she was working as a waitress, if she made any mistake it would immediately come back to her. Everyone would be upset with her. There would be tension in the team because everyone was working to earn money, to earn their livelihood. When she volunteered at Karma Kitchen, she said, “It’s the exact same work, but if I felt like I made a mistake, I wouldn’t even realize it. Ten minutes or half an hour later I’d realize I forgot an order. And someone else would have already covered it.” She said it was amazing that it’s the exact same amount of work, but the context is completely different.
So, when we think of kindness and compassion, it’s an invitation to look at how we can create a context where these values get amplified. How might that influence the way we operate, the way we think, what we think is even possible, and the way we are? The way we show up.
Q: Thank you for sharing your colleague’s experience. I feel like there is no such thing as a random act of kindness, because every act we do has a ripple effect, which is not logical and not measurable. And it doesn’t feel like it’s ever wasted. It’s always going to make a difference, of course for the receiver, but also for the giver, because always in giving we receive something. Which leads me on to the next question about laddership. How is “laddership” different from leadership?
AL: Whenever I write the word “laddership” in a document, it’s auto-corrected. And I really enjoy the auto-correction because it makes me realize that this is a new paradigm. It’s a different way of thinking. The first time I heard “laddership” was at a team leaders’ retreat. There was a mentor visiting from out of town, and he’s kind of a community mentor, so everyone was saying, “You should join our team leadership retreat, please come. We’d love to have your presence there.” He looked at everyone and he’s very good at making puns. He said, “Leader? I don’t want to be a leader. I want to be a ladder.” And he made a gesture like it’s not so much about being the person in front, as that person who can help people to climb up. How can I be that stepping stone to lift others up and help them rise? As soon as he said that, everyone said, “We want to be ladders, too.” That retreat became a team ladders retreat, a laddership retreat.
I think there are some differences. In traditional leadership, leaders are people in charge. They are executing pathways and directing new visions. It’s that white knight in shining armour leading the pack. That way of leading is in a way built on some form of power. You are directing people; people are deferring to you, sometimes out of force, out of hierarchy. And laddership is the antithesis. It’s the person at the back of the room who’s tuning into viewpoints of the collective and finding value in so many different people. And drawing that out and helping amplify their patterns of positive deviance. Ladders are a form of serving leadership. You might look at someone as a ladder and they might not even consider themselves a ladder. It’s more about their way of being. So, the ladder looks at leadership as being the change, whereas the leader might look at the world and say, “How can we change the world? What can we do?” A ladder might look at how to see a spectrum of value everywhere; the multiple forms of wealth to be engaged. A leader might say, “How can I command the financial capital and disperse these resources to a certain end goal?” A ladder might engage at the edges of a space, whereas the leader might be the person directing at the center.
A lot of laddership focuses on building relationships and trusting in the distributed strength of the collective, whereas a leader may think more about how to scale the transactions, and how to engage in the vision.
I don’t mean to say that one is better than the other. There are times when you need leadership, otherwise you get a vacuum in a group and a little bit of chaos. There are times when ladders need to step up, and say, “This is the direction we’re trying to go in,” and assume that role. But a quote from Lao Tzu comes to mind, the Chinese philosopher who said that a leader is best when people barely know they exist. When the work is done, they will say, “We did this ourselves.” I think that’s the beauty of it. To be in a space where you don’t even know who the leader is. And yet you feel like you’re going in some direction. There is something happening. I think that’s the real beautiful thing about it.
Q: Thank you Audrey. So, the next question is: How can we make kindness a habit? How can we try to inculcate it into our DNA? Is it in some way related to the compassion quotient you were telling me about? How can we become a continuous conduit of kindness?
AL: Those are beautiful questions. Cultivating a habit of kindness starts with trying. It also helps to have a community around, to keep us accountable. I remember riding a bus some years ago. It was a little bit crowded, and I was sitting reading a book. The bus driver started speaking very loudly at one stop, saying, “Oh, it’s great to see you today! There’s a seat right behind me. You can sit right here.” My back was facing the driver so I couldn’t see who he was talking to, but I remember thinking, “Wow, I’ve never heard such a cheerful bus driver.” The bus drivers I had encountered were not so cheerful, and theirs is a stressful job. So, I turned around and saw a blind woman walking up the steps to sit down in the seat that the bus driver had mentioned. And I thought it was really nice that he spoke loudly and directed her to the seat right behind him.
As we’re going along, and I was still reading my book, the bus driver knew everybody at every stop. He would say, “You’re at a different stop today,” or “I haven’t seen you in a while.” He was making small talk with the regulars and he was also talking with the woman right behind him: “What stop are you getting off at? I’ll let you know when it comes.” At this point I put my book away. I was just watching them and watching the driver. As we reached the stop where the woman was getting off, he says, “We’re at your stop, ma’am.” When she got off, he spoke to the person getting off behind her, saying, “Can you make sure she gets on the subway okay?” He was trying to watch out for her.
The woman said, “I don’t need so much help. Leave me alone,” but he took it all and said, “Okay, have a wonderful day. It was a pleasure having you on the bus today.” I’m not making this up. At that point, there was a crowd in the back trying to get off the bus, but the door wasn’t open because he was so focused upfront. And so, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and opened the door so everybody could alight from the back.
I was just watching this, and thought, “Wow, this is really nice.” I felt like I should tell him, first of all, that I had witnessed the manifestation of gold in front of me and I realized what it took for me to even see that. To even notice it as something remarkable. And second, that seeing the way he acted, his cheerfulness, made my day. As soon as I had that thought, all these excuses started playing in my head, why I shouldn’t compliment him. Why it’s not worth it. It’s such a small thing. But I knew that was just my fear and uncertainty around doing something that is out of the usual.
So when it was my stop, I went up to him and said, “Seeing the way you interacted with that blind woman really made my day. I also appreciate your friendliness today.”
He just looked at me and said, “Wow, thank you so much. I have a brother who’s deaf, so whenever there is someone who is seeing or hearing impaired on my bus, I try to help them out. Thank you so much, I’ll remember that it made a difference for you.”
It was five seconds of interaction, and when I got off the bus I was on cloud nine. It was just this beautiful exchange that gave me hope in humanity. The thing that actually made me say, “Okay, you have to go and tell him how grateful you are to witness that,” is the portal in some of our projects where people share acts of kindness.
I know there are whole communities where people do random acts of kindness and it makes their day, and they go out of their comfort zone and help others. It’s not a weird thing. Although it feels weird because everyone’s in their own world on the bus, they’re all focused on their day. I really feel that one element is being able to see the kindness in front of us, and interpret it as kindness. And what does it take to have eyes to see that? Another element is to make a pact with a friend, like, “Alright, we’re in this together. Let’s do a 21-day kindness challenge.” Or, “Let’s share all the kind things we saw today.” A common pact people do is “5-good-things,” where they say five good things they’re grateful for that day. Just set the intention for it. To reflect in the community makes a big difference.
You also asked about the compassion quotient. It is just the idea that we have an actual quotient. We have an intellectual quotient, IQ, and we have all these metrics to measure intellectual aptitude. And in recent years, we have developed EQ, emotional quotient, which is a measurement of how much we can engage with others, levels of sensitivity, and emotions. And then we have the compassion quotient, which is our capacity to offer ourselves, to respond with kindness again and again.
To be continued.