The Character Movement

Tim Welsh on stage asks us to go beyond Minnesota Nice

More than Minnesota Nice

By Tim Welsh, Vice Chairman of Consumer Banking Sales and Support for U.S. Bank

The following content is adapted from Tim’s keynote at Youth Frontiers’ 2017 Ethical Leadership Luncheon.

Let me start by thanking all of you for being here today to discuss ethical leadership and to support the amazing work of Youth Frontiers. It is a very busy time of year, and I know that all of you have many demands on your time. I suspect some of you were like me when you looked at your calendar this morning. You had more work to do then you had realized, and you asked yourself if you could really spare the time to go off to a luncheon. I am very grateful that you chose to focus on such an important topic and to help an organization that has touched the lives of literally millions of young people in this community and around the Midwest, including my own kids.

It is a tremendous honor for me to be speaking with all of you today on behalf of this amazing organization. It is also a bit daunting. Think about it. The topic of ethical leadership is one that has been written about for 2,500 years by people with names like Aristotle and Kant. I am certain that I am not going to play in their league. So what can I add to the discussion? 

As I reflected on that question, what I have come to appreciate is that ethics, as we have historically thought about them — do the right thing, follow the laws — are simply table stakes today. Everyone has to adhere to those standards. All you have to do is read the headlines any day to see what happens to people who don’t have that ethical framework. So this raises an interesting question: How do you build upon those table stakes? What more can you do to live an ethical life? And in particular, is there a “Minnesota spin” we can put on this discussion? That’s what I would like to talk about today.

As we get started this afternoon, I would like to borrow a phrase that Youth Frontiers leaders often use during their retreats with young people. They say something along the lines of, “We don’t often come together like this, so let’s take a moment to be fully present here in this space, leaving the outside world behind for the moment.”

The core of ethics

In that light, I would like you to take a moment and think back to a time when someone was truly kind to you at work. Really kind. I know that some of you are sitting next to co-workers, and you are all probably rolling your eyes at me right now. You might be thinking something like, “I thought we were going to talk about ethics.” But, I believe that kindness is at the core of ethics. Yet, we don’t talk about it a lot. We don’t often think about it or give it its due credit. Because it’s often a little thing — somebody picking up coffee and donuts for that early meeting, someone pulling you aside to let you know they appreciated your contribution in that last meeting, someone simply listening to you as you talk about the day-to-day activities of your life.  These are not actually little things. They are the building blocks of culture, connection and ethics.

So think about that moment of kindness at work. Hold that thought. Close your eyes if you would like. How did you feel in that moment? Why do you think they acted that way? What was your reaction to the kindness?

I suspect that as you thought about the feeling of receiving kindness, words like “warm” or “comforted” or “cared for” came to your mind. I suspect that in your story, someone reached out a hand — either literally or figuratively — to help you. I know that this act of kindness touched you deeply, so much so that you remember it fondly to this day. I also imagine that their act of kindness inspired you and perhaps even motivated you to reach out your hand to another. It is amazing how powerful a force we unleash when we reach out to another in a genuine sense of kindness.

Focusing on strengths

Let me tell you a quick story about kindness that I have have seen at work. I spent nearly 27 years working at McKinsey, the global consulting firm. McKinsey is well known for its people development practices, but there was one catch. For many years — in fact, much of my time at the firm — the way we developed people was to focus on what was wrong with them and how they could “fix” those issues. We would start meetings of new teams with comments like, “Hi, I’m Tim, and here are my three development needs.” In doing this, we took very talented people and made them feel terrible about themselves. All we talked about was what was wrong with someone.

Several years ago, we started to change that. We adopted a strengths-based approach to development. Much of the research about human development shows that if you focus on what people are already good at and help them to do more of that, they get better much faster than if you focus on fixing what is wrong with them. And not only did this help people develop better, it also made them feel much better! Instead of focusing on what was wrong with each person, we focused on what made them special. What their gifts were, and how they could nurture those gifts. They felt appreciated and cared for. And they developed professionally much faster than they would have otherwise. Simple acts of kindness at work —recognizing what is special about each person and helping them feel appreciated — changed the lives of many of my former colleagues.

Reaching out with kindness

You have all heard the term “Minnesota Nice” to describe the way people in our state behave toward one another. While occasionally the description can be used pejoratively to describe a form of passive aggressiveness, in the best sense, Minnesota Nice describes a very positive sentiment. Who doesn’t want to be nice? And who doesn’t want to live in a place where other people are nice?

But today, I would like to ask you to think about going beyond Minnesota Nice. I would like us to think about being Minnesota Kind. Kindness goes much further and can be much more powerful than simply being nice. Think back to the story you had in your head a moment ago. Think of how powerful that act of kindness was. Kindness is an action. It takes courage, humility and empathy. Being kind requires a person to put themselves in the shoes of another and to show genuine care. True kindness recognizes that we all share a common humanity and appreciates the things we all have in common. Those things that unite us are far more important than the differences we sometimes see too easily. Kindness has the power to transform those who are touched by it because kindness is a form of love.

One of my favorite images of Minnesota is the picture of Minny and Paul that is boldly displayed on the center field scoreboard at Target Field where our beloved Minnesota Twins play baseball. I suspect that you have seen this image at some point.

More than Minnesota Nice — be like Minny and Paul

Let me tell you why I think this image is a marvelous example of Minnesota Kind. Let’s remember that in the early 1960s, when this image was created, Minneapolis and St. Paul were rivals and they shared very little in common. Just think about a few examples: each city had their own United Way, their own Catholic Charities, and there was a Minneapolis Club and a St. Paul Club. I suspect few people were members of both of those clubs. But Minny and Paul helped to change that mindset. As you can see in the picture, they literally reached out their hands to one another, shook, and became a team. A remarkable act of kindness, showing real courage and empathy. And because of this act of reaching out across what can sometimes seem like a very wide river, they helped unite an entire community. They become one — partners forever, truly Twins in every sense of the word.

Like all metaphors, the image of Minny and Paul has its limitations. They are both white men, and as a result, many people may feel disconnected from them as symbols of anything. But in the same way that they overlooked obstacles in order to connect with one another, I would urge us to look at the fundamental message, the act of kindness represented by their outstretched hands, and ask ourselves what we could learn from them.

So let’s fast forward to today. How does the image of Minny and Paul inspire us to be Minnesota Kind in our current context? I would ask you to think about the divides that we all face today, the metaphorical “rivers” that seem to separate us from one another. For me, race, income level and political perspectives are some of the divides that I personally experience. I have recognized my own ignorance in these areas. In fact, not only am I ignorant, I am also disconnected. Too often I don’t even know people whose experiences and views are different from my own. But I am trying to reach out. I am trying to show kindness to those who are different from me. And I am trying to receive the acts of kindness from others outside of my normal sphere. While I fail more often than I succeed, I am trying to imitate the kindness, the courage and the generosity that Minny and Paul display. Think about how much stronger our community would be if each of us here today could reach out our hands in kindness, across whatever rivers we see, in order to embrace another.

I thought of this image of Minny and Paul reaching out to one another when I joined a Youth Frontiers retreat recently at St. Louis Park High School. I was moved as I watched numerous students admit that they had not been kind to others in the room, that they had not shown respect to themselves or to others. They committed there, in front of their peers and teachers, to be kind to one another going forward. My eyes welled with tears as I watched those who had hurt another reach out to embrace the one whom they had hurt, and then be embraced back by that person. I witnessed amazing acts of kindness and of forgiveness. The power of kindness — the power of reaching out one’s hand to another — never ceases to amaze me.

The power of kindness

I have certainly experienced the transformative power of kindness in my own life — in fact, quite literally since the beginning of my life. Let me describe an experience I had recently that taught me the extraordinary value of kindness, an example of how reaching out one’s hand to help another can literally change a life. As you will hear, this story has a religious element to it, and I recognize there are many different belief systems present in the room. I hope you will hear in this story the remarkable acts of kindness that touch all people, irrespective of religious orientation.

It was with some trepidation that I walked up the stairs this past March to a building that had clearly seen few improvements since the 1960s. But as soon as I entered, any anxiety I might have felt was dispelled by the warmth of the people I met. I had not been back to St. Ann’s Infant Home in the 51 years since I had been adopted from there.

As I entered St. Ann’s, Sr. Mary Bader, who is a living saint and has led the organization for nearly 35 years, quickly found Mrs. Martin, who has taken care of children at St. Ann’s for 53 years. As we walked through the building, Mrs. Martin showed me the rooms where I would have slept, along with the rooms where the pregnant mothers would have stayed before giving birth. Mrs. Martin described how every evening, she would undress 36 infants (yes 36, often by herself) and would put them all in their cribs. While they slept, she would polish those little white shoes that all children of that era wore — remember those little shoes? Can you imagine polishing 36 pairs of them every night?

Clearly, in spite of its unassuming exterior, St. Ann’s is a place full of love. Indeed that love is so abundant that you can almost see the presence of God radiating through the walls. You could hear that love in the cheery voices of the children who play in the hallways and classrooms today. As I said to Sr. Mary when I was leaving, it is clear to me that St. Ann’s is the place where I first learned how to love and be loved because of the kindness that was shown to me there.

I had become curious about visiting St. Mary’s because of an unusual — dare I say divinely inspired — event that had occurred a few months before this visit. I was sitting in a board meeting for a foundation here in town — a completely unlikely scenario for any divine intervention. We started by welcoming a new board member to our group. She introduced herself as a Catholic Sister, a Daughter of Charity, and said that she started her work as a sister taking care of infants at an adoption home in Washington, DC. I turned to her and asked, “Sr. Carol, what home was that?”

“St. Ann’s,” she said.

I probed a bit more. “And when were you there?”

“1968,” came her response.

“Sister,” I said, “we missed each other by two years.” Indeed Sr. Carol had been taking care of infants at St. Ann’s where I had been adopted.

Over dinner, she proceeded to tell me the story of what would likely have happened in the first six weeks of my life. My birth mother — an 18-year-old Catholic girl who in 1965 became pregnant by a Jewish boy — would have stayed at St. Ann’s for about six months prior to my birth. Along with about 25 other girls, she would have been treated with incredible dignity and respect in spite of the shame that might have been associated with her situation. After I was born, she would have been with me for my first week, and then she would have held me as I was baptized. At that point, I would have been taken from her and placed into the care of others, to be adopted a few weeks later.

I, of course, had never heard this story before and soon thereafter was retelling it to a friend. As we both wiped our eyes, he looked at me and said, “Tim, do you see what happened? It is completely obvious.”

I said, “No, I don’t get it at all.”

“Tim, at your baptism, your birth mother placed you into the hands of God.”

While I have been able to see God’s grace in action many times in my life, this was clearly the most profound. At the moment when I was completely helpless, my birth mother had such faith that she placed me into God’s hands. And God directly intervened. I was not simply placed in the imaginary hands of God that the poet or the painter might create. I was placed into actual human hands — Mrs. Martin’s hands, and then ultimately into the hands of my parents. Those moments transformed my life, and I believe laid the foundation for who I would become.

Think about all of the amazing acts of kindness we have reflected on today. The stories that each of us recalled wherein someone reached out a hand in kindness when we were in need. The image of Minny and Paul reaching out their hands to one another across the wide river that previously divided them. The students at St. Louis Park High School embracing someone they had hurt, and someone who had hurt them. Mrs. Martin, reaching out her hands to care for me when I was completely helpless. All of these are remarkable acts of kindness. And they are transformative. They truly changed the lives of those who were touched by this kindness.

Beyond Minnesota Nice

In a few minutes, each of us will return to work and all of the hectic demands we will have to respond to. And it could be very easy to forget about being kind, to simply fall back into the mindset of getting things done. Too often, we think that being kind applies to how we treat our friends and families, but at work — well, that’s a different story. Much less need for kindness there.

But I would challenge each of us to think about how this notion of kindness might apply at work. Every person here today is a leader in their organization. By definition, each of you touches the lives of many, many people every day and in countless ways. I would challenge each of us to ask, “How can I be kind to those people at work?” “When can I reach out my hands to help another?” Will you be like Mrs. Martin from St. Ann’s Infant Home and reach out your hands to help another whose name you may never know? Can you be like Minny and Paul and reach out to those who seem different from you? Or will you be like those remarkable students at St. Louis Park High School and reach out those you have hurt and those who have hurt you?

As you know, these acts of kindness are often very simple gestures — taking a few minutes to support a colleague who has had a rough day or encouraging someone who is about to make a big presentation. And sometimes, these actions are more significant. But all of these actions, big or small, have the power to be transformative. Think about what it would mean if employees at your organization went home every day and said to their families, “The people I work with are incredibly kind. They truly care about me.” The lives of these employees would be forever changed. They would be inspired to show that kindness to others, and they would be incredibly grateful to be in such a wonderful work environment. I suspect that each of our organizations would attract extraordinary employees and have extremely high engagement if our organizations were on the list of “the kindest places to work.”

I hope we never stop being Minnesota Nice to one another. But my real hope is that we will go beyond Minnesota nice, that we will develop a new idea called Minnesota Kind. I hope that Minnesota will be the place where we all continually reach out our hands —at work and in our personal lives — to help one another. And I so deeply hope that all of us here will lead the way, that we will from today forward model what it means to be Minnesota Kind.

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