Are You a Ruthful Leader?

The word “ruthless” means without “ruth” or “showing no compassion for another.” We have essentially lost the word “ruth” from our vernacular. Its origin comes from the Hebrew word meaning “a true friend.” Students of the Old Testament of the Bible instantly associate it with the heart-warming story of Ruth following her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Bethlehem when Naomi lost her husband. It is about loyalty and kindness—a powerful feature for great leaders.

Lawrence of Arabia won the academy award in 1962 for best picture. Given the current conflicts in the Middle East, I recently watched the four-hour movie to learn more about the cultural history of the area. Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (played by best actor winner Peter O’Toole) was a British intelligence officer assigned to investigate the revolt of the Arabs against the Turks during World War I. He embraced the culture and dress of the Arabs, and organized a guerrilla army that for two years raided the Turks with surprise attacks.

In the early part of the movie, a poor Bedouin guide is hired to escort Lawrence across the desert to meet with Prince Faisal (played by Alec Guinness), the leader of the Arab revolt. (Faisal would ultimately become King of Syria and King of Iraq, pushing for unity between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims.) It was customary at the time for desert guides to be paid at the end of their assignment. Instead, at the beginning of their journey, Lawrence gave his military pistol to the guide—a gift of great value and pleasure for any Bedouin.

What followed was a powerful example of “leading it forward.” The guide instantly gave Lawrence some of his food, provisions better suited to desert survival than the military rations Lawrence carried. The guide then assumed a mentoring role revealing valuable desert survival secrets. The timing of Lawrence’s unorthodox gift completely changed the dynamic of the relationship, with the Bedouin transforming from “compliant servant” into “resourceful partner.” It was an act of “ruth.”

Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia started getting a lot of publicity after their decision to sell single slices of pizza for a dollar. But it didn’t have to do with the price of the slice; it was about a customer-suggested idea for how to fund pizza for the homeless. It worked like this: when customers bought pizza for themselves, they put a dollar in a container, wrote a message on a Post-it note, and stuck it on the wall. Any homeless person could come into the store, take a Post-it note off the wall, and get a slice of pizza. Rosa’s acts of “ruth” have resulting in the donation of thousands of slices.

The principle of “ruth” is about giving more than is expected. It is a proactive attitude of engulfing a relationship with emotional plenty without a concern for reciprocity. Granted, we cannot “give” our way to bottom-line success. An attitude of abundance is more the belief that if we employ a giver mentality, employees and customers will take care of the bottom line. Abundance is a self-less gesture that changes the calculus of service from miserly subtraction to Midas-like addition.

The sports world was uplifted in the 2016 Rio Olympics 5000-meter heat when Abbey D’Agostino of the USA fell, causing her to trip up Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand, a fellow runner she did not know. D’Agostino could have regained her composure and continued toward the finish line. Instead, she worked to help Hamblin to her feet. But D’Agostino’s injured legs buckled in the attempt, and Hamblin returned the favor, helping D’Agostino. Neither runner resumed the race until both could successfully run. Because neither was at fault for the fall, both were allowed to race in the finals. “It is a moment,” said Hamblin, “I will never, ever forget for the rest of my life.” The cheering fans that watched the gesture of “ruth” are not likely to forget it either.

A “ruth” orientation has a magnetic impact on employees. It attracts them because it conveys the kind of unconditional positive regard that characterizes relationships at their best. Employees like the way they feel when dealing with leaders who have such an orientation. They feel valued, not used. They enjoy relationships with value and substance far more than encounters that are functional but hollow.

The backstory of Lawrence of Arabia was a man’s search for meaning and self- understanding. T.E. Lawrence found in the Arab desert that, to quote Mahatma Gandhi,

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Give to your employees the best you have, and their best will come back to you.