Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

A Quiet Type of Discretionary Effort

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There is an old story that comes out of Poland from the year 1550 that demonstrates what quiet discretionary effort is all about. It was documented by Shlomo Carlebach and goes something like this. There was a very small community that was quite impoverished. In order to survive the brutal conditions of the time everyone chipped in and helped out others in the community as they could. The poorest of the poor relied on the charity of their neighbors in order not to starve to death. There was one fellow though who stood apart, let’s call him Joe.

Joe, unlike others in the community was comparatively well off, but he kept to himself and did not interact much with others of the community. He did not donate to the charities that helped out the poor. Because of this the community kept their distance and when Joe walked down the street people were especially cold to him, not speaking to him and calling him names behind his back. The children occasionally threw rocks at him as he walked by.  

Years went by and Joe became old and frail. He was dying. The members of the community paid little heed and when Joe finally died it took 3 days for a neighbor to have pity on Joe’s elderly wife and to help bury him. A week went by and one of the leaders of the community had a visitor call on him at his house. The visitor was one of the poorest of the community and he spoke to the village leader, “Forgive me for coming so late, but I have nowhere else to go. Could you please give me some money so that I could feed my family?” “Of course”, said the leader of the community who had access to funds from the community charity organizations. “But tell me in all the years that I have known you, you have never come to me for money. How have you been managing?”  The poor community member responded, “I haven’t been able to find a job for 20 years. No matter how hard I have tried to make a living for my family, nothing has ever worked out. But for all these years, every Thursday morning, I would find an envelope under my door with enough money in it to make it through the week and be able to feed my family. This week, I don’t know what happened, but the envelope did not come.”

Soon after there was another knock on the village leaders door, from another impoverished resident who told a similar story, then another and another, and another. The village leader was puzzled. Someone had taken care of these people year after year, making sure that they were able to feed their families. Then something changed, but what? What had changed in the last week? The only thing new was that Joe had passed away, but Joe was a miser who never gave any money to charity, how could that be possible? The village leader probed the crowd that was now in his house, “Did you ever know Joe? Did you ever ask him for money?”

Each of those gathered gave a similar story. They were at the depths of their despair their children going to bed every night hungry. They had no money to buy fuel to warm their meager residences. They had nowhere to turn. Each of them in their turn summoned up enough courage and in their desperation went to see Joe to ask for some money. Each was turned down, but not before Joe had asked them where they lived, how many children did they have, and how much money did they need each week to keep their households going.  And then the anonymous envelopes would begin to turn up. The leaders and members of the community were distraught. For all these years they had shunned Joe, the very children whose lives he had saved by providing money so their parents could buy them food and keep them warm had thrown rocks at him!

The leaders visited Joe’s elderly frail wife who handed them a note that Joe had told her to give them should they come to ask any questions. On the note was a single sentence, “I did not want to embarrass you by publicly giving the money, besides I did not only do it for you, I also did it for me and I knew.”  

There are a lot of Joe’s out there who toil at their tasks, not necessarily seeking public recognition, but many times overlooked until they are no longer doing the things that others may take for granted.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 8, 2009 at 11:11 am

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