Monday, January 28, 2008

The Heart of Work

by Tom Hinton

When I was a college student at the University of Maryland, I was very fortunate to land a part-time job in the Washington, D.C. area with a non-profit organization that served people with disabilities. My boss was named Robert. Despite the fact that Robert had been paralyzed from wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War, he was a positive and kind person who brought an abundance of excitement and positive thinking to the workplace. Even though he was confined to a wheelchair, Robert never let his physical limitations reduce his spirits. He was always upbeat and motivating. He was a great role model for us.

Robert expected good things from his employees and, in turn, he tried to instill in us a sense of responsibility to the organization and a commitment to give our very best, one hundred percent of the time.

Robert taught me several important lessons about leadership and how to succeed in the workplace. He believed that success in the workplace boiled down to two things --building positive relationships with other employees, and distinguishing yourself as part of the team.

When Robert talked about leadership, he was fond of citing the HEART acronym. He told us if we would lead with heart, we would always be successful regardless of the kind of business we managed or our rank or title. Here it is.

“H” stands for Humility. Never forget to check your ego at the door when you show-up for work. Always share the credit with those that got you there. If you are humble and give your team the credit for a job well done, it’s amazing how many people will want to be part of your team. Another part of humility is admitting you don’t have all the answers. Robert used to remind us that the best leaders solicit ideas and solutions from others because no two people see things the same. It’s just possible somebody else will have a good idea you didn’t think of! By the way, part of humility is acknowledging people for their good ideas. Humility is also putting the needs and interests of others first. Robert reminded us that the best leaders always put their teammates first. Great leaders are accustomed to being served last.

“E” represents Energy. When you arrive at work make sure you bring your best with you. Robert reminded us to put an extra jolt of energy and excitement in our voices when we answered the telephone or greeted a volunteer-member of the organization. He said that we should never forget that the person on the other end of the telephone line might be feeling down or in need of an emotional lift. Try to be the person who brings a little extra positive energy to the office because some people might have forgotten theirs.

Robert also told me that the fastest way to boost workplace productivity and results is to energize the workplace. Create a friendly, positive environment that invites people to give their best and enjoy themselves. Finally, Robert told us that there is no room in the workplace for toxic talk or negativity. Only positive energy would be allowed in his department. That’s why Robert never complained about the weather, the traffic, or his physical limitations. Although he was uncomfortable and suffered some physical pain, he never showed it. In fact, he always celebrated life to its fullest each and every day. Whenever we saw Robert wheeling around the office, we quickly realized that any complaints we had about life paled in comparison to what he had overcome.

“A” is for Abundance. Regardless of the cards life deals us, Robert believed that every person was capable of creating abundance in their life. He was a shining example of this. He took stock of his talents and attributes and did the best he could with them. If Robert awoke in the morning feeling sorry for himself or angry because he had lost the use of his legs, we never saw a hint of this. By the time he rolled into work, he had transformed any frown or physical discomfort into a smile and he was focused on doing the best he could.

Robert also taught us something else about abundance. It had little to do with money or possessions. When Robert spoke about abundance, he would always talk about the emotional aspects of abundance -- the heart and soul of abundance -- our ability to serve others. “The well of abundance never runs dry,” he was fond of saying.

“R” is for Respect. At work, we were frequently reminded to respect the needs of our members and each other. “Every human being deserves respect,” Robert would tell us. He also reminded us that there would be times during the day when someone would call our office and wouldn’t know how to ask for help. Perhaps it was their sense of pride or their inability to face their physical limitations. But, it was very important that we listen to each caller and give people a chance to work through their pain and anger. In the end, Robert reminded us, everyone wants to know you’re their friend; that you care about them as a person. This was Robert’s definition of respect. He understood that human dignity, when reduced to its lowest common denominator, amounted to kindness, caring, and understanding.

“T” represents “Think.” If there was one thing that got Robert hot under the collar it was when people opened their mouths before they put their brains in gear. Robert insisted that we think about what we wanted to say before we said it, and planned what we wanted to do before we did it! He encouraged us to write drafts before we sent a letter. Robert also suggested that we script-out our calls to prospective members before dialing the number so we didn’t get tongue-tied or lost in our thought process. It was good advice.

Robert, who served as a First Sergeant in his U.S. Army company, told us that when you are under fire in a combat situation, you learn quickly to think, or you might not survive. His military training and quick thinking saved his life when his company came under heavy enemy fire for several hours. Despite his wounds, he kept his cool and was able to drag himself and two wounded comrades to safety. His valor earned him a Silver Star. His story was a powerful reminder of why it’s important to train your mind and discipline your thought process so you can react calmly and quickly in any situation.

Twenty-five years later I still use Robert’s HEART acronym. I am also appreciative to have had the kind of boss who genuinely cared about his employees and was willing to give us many special gifts that would last a lifetime. Now, whenever I hear people talk about the heart of work, I think fondly of Robert and the heart he gave all of us who worked with him.

About the Author: Tom Hinton is president of CRI Global, LLC and is recognized as America's leader on Business Excellence. Tom is also a dynamic business speaker who helps his clients create a culture of excellence in the workplace. He can be reached at

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