The Value of Kindness to Strangers

23-November-2010Published in: St. Louis American

For me, storytelling is a true leadership tool. It can help kick start a new idea, socialize new members into a team, and mend relationships or share wisdom. I want to tell you four short stories.

As a child growing up in Africa, my sisters and I must have heard our dad tell this story a hundred times. The story began on a rainy night, in a faraway place called America.

It's about 11:30 p.m. An older African-American woman was stranded on the side of an Alabama highway in a gusting rainstorm. Her car had broken down, and she desperately needed a ride home. Soaking wet, she tried to flag down the cars as they passed by, but nobody stopped to help.

After what must have seemed like eternity, a young white man stopped. My dad would then pause to remind us that this act of kindness by this young man was rare in those conflict-filled, racially tense 1960s.

The young man was gracious and took her to safety, and even waited to get her a taxicab so she could make it home to attend to an urgent matter. Although she was in a hurry to get home, she asked the good Samaritan for his name and address just before he drove away.

A few days later, the young man received an unexpected surprise in the mail. It was a giant console, black and white TV with a special note attached. My dad, being the dramatist, would take out a piece of paper from his pocket and read the note to my sisters and me. The note read:

"Thank you so much for helping me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes but also my spirits. But, because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husband's bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and serving others unselfishly. Sincerely, Mrs. Nat King Cole."

The wife of one of the greatest musical icons of the 20th century!

One of the most remarkable things about America is the willingness of strangers to reach out and help others. St. Louis knows a thing or two about helping others and lifting up those in need. Today we honor individuals and organizations whose mission and reason for existence is enabling others to reach their goals and by doing so transforming lives and entire neighborhoods.

Edited from his keynote address given at the St. Louis American Foundation's 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business. The speech will be continued in future editions of The American.