The Undervalued Virtue of Human Goodness

The Undervalued Virtue of Human Goodness

A sequoia can live two thousand years. A domestic cat would do very well if they made it to twenty years. A mayfly – born at sunrise, gone by nightfall. Each life is complete in itself. The quality of an individual life has nothing to do with its longevity but everything to do with how it is lived.

Years ago I took a course from Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science. In that course, Meg told us about the values that guide her organization. The first value is, “We rely on human goodness.” This means that when people come to work they want a chance to help others, to learn, to be acknowledged, and to find meaning in what they do. In short, when they come to work, they want to live well.

Is there human goodness in your organization and in your life? In our busy and efficient lives, are we taking time to foster human goodness? It concerns me that we are creating a world that is more economically and technically efficient, but less satisfying to live in. With cell phones and other electronic devices we all spend so much of our time looking down, are we looking up to see the goodness that surrounds us? Goodness makes life satisfying and meaningful. It is goodness that makes a workplace worth working in, schools worth learning in, relationships worth being in, and a world worth living in. Goodness is what fosters our humanity.

In the wake of the European refugee crisis, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris presented an offer to Italy and Greece to buy one of their islands and fill it with Syrian refugees. “All I am asking is to find me an island, and I will make the financial payments for it,” said Sawiris, who said he plans to spend between $10 million and $100 million. If he is able to find an island, he plans to call it “Alan” in honour of the drowned toddler Alan Kurdi.

One time interim president of Kentucky State University, Raymond Burse, gave up $90,000 of his annual salary to give minimum wage workers on campus a raise. The lowest paid workers on campus at the time made $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage. With Burse’s contribution they made $10.25 per hour, an increase that stayed in effect after the university hired him to be their full-time president.

In the ten years that Doug Conant served as CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, he turned the suffering business around and put the focus back on the people who worked there. Over the course of his time at Campbell, Conant was said to have written 30,000 handwritten “thank-you” notes to his employees. The company only had 20,000 employees. (That total amounts to about ten a week.) “I made it personal at Campbell,” Conant said in an HBR podcast.

Goodness doesn’t require money or position – all of us can make choices that improve the lives of others. Goodness is not about personal gain that we get from acts of kindness, but rather a genuine desire to give something back to the world. Goodness brings meaning and fulfillment to life.

Practicing goodness was instilled in me from a very early age. My parents taught me by the way they lived their life that goodness and generosity are important, that your word is your bond, that your integrity is more important than making a good impression. They also taught me that goodness isn’t something you seek for recognition, but rather something that you bring to others.

Here are a few ways to put the value of goodness into practice:

  • Do something nice for someone and not be found out.
  • Do more than you get paid for.
  • Grant a person grace when they make an honest mistake.
  • Take a few minutes to listen to a colleague. Care.
  • Refuse to be dishonest.
  • Learn people’s names. Make a connection.
  • Put your computer to sleep. Leave your cell phone at your desk. Get out of your office and connect with your colleagues.
  • Give someone sincere acknowledgement.
  • Pay attention to people.
  • Never make a promise you don’t intend to keep.
  • Say thank you.

Although greatness is a goal worth pursuing, if it costs your integrity, health, relationships, or the quality of your life, goodness may very well be a better aspiration.

David Irvine
David Irvine
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