Leading with Character and With a Coin on the Copier

Last week I referenced the story of the “coin on the copier.” I referred to it as one of those stories about things you may say — especially when people look up to you — where the impact on others is more powerful than you’d ever think. The coin on the copier story was something that my wife Jennifer experienced back in 1985 with someone she respected. She came home and told me about it. And the two of us have been informed by and shared the story tens, if not hundreds, of times since.

Readers wondered about that reference, and I realized that I’d never written about it here. So, here goes. Jennifer was twenty-five, in her first summer law associate position at a mid-town law firm in New York. One day she headed to the copy room to Xerox a case for a memo she was working on (we did a lot of Xeroxing in those pre-digital days). She had to wait for Dick Kullen, a senior partner for whom she had done some research. He finished making a copy, reached into his pocket to pull out a dime, and left it in the little tray where the paper clips and White-Out sat.

Jennifer, who is prone to tease and always curious asked, “What’s with the dime in the dish?” Mr. Kullen explained that he was making a “personal copy” and that it was just a practice of his not to use firm resources for personal business. Likely responding to her quizzical look, he then explained that in his view if you take care of the little things — if you act ethically when no one (other than some nosy summer associate) is looking, then when the bigger things come along you’re used to doing what’s simply right. We appreciated it at the time and as we began our careers in government and law.

When Jennifer was governor she drew a very bright line: personal, campaign, and any other non-public activity could never be conducted or supported with public resources. It came naturally for her to live the principle herself. She had metaphorically put many a dime on a copier. “Back in the day” you didn’t use the company copier for personal stuff, or the phone to make private calls. Now, so many lines are blurred. In fact, ironically, most of us now use our home, personally-paid internet service and cell phones to do company work on (what we used to call) our personal time.  Perhaps it would be good for companies to give workers some ethical consideration — to put their dime on our copier!

Yet for each of us as leaders the point of the coin on the copier is perhaps even more salient today when rules are more lax. The principle is every bit as clear: Do right in the little things, and the bigger things will follow. Do right in the little things and your followers will follow. Tell the stories and do the little things to

Lead with your best self.

  • Thanks for the reminder, Dan. The little things really do count, and that’s what integrity if all about. Those little things can and do really add up to the big things.

  • Thank you Dan for your story. I have one similar to that. I went to a store(I think it was Target, but I don’t remember) and upon check out the clerk gave me about $60 additional in change. I was with a younger cousin of mine and he thought I should keep it. My cousin Hakim said to me, “That’s good luck. You should just keep it. No one will know. That’s their fault.” I told him, “I’m going to return it because it doesn’t belong to me and even though they may never know, I will.” My inner selves were speaking to me and I was thinking about Karma. I’ve always earned money since I was pre-teen so I’ve never had that mentality to take or receive something I haven’t earned. I took the money back into Target and the cashier looked shocked. She was a small Filipino lady who seemed as though english was her second language. She hugged me and started crying. She said that she had three kids and was going through a stressful time in life that was causing her to forget and mess up. Her managers had threatened to fire her if her register came up short one more time. The woman cried from joy and I’ll never forget that. She told me she would have lost her job and been homeless had I not came back. That day I left the Dime on the copier. My cousin Hakim references that event a lot. He is reminded that we should Lead with integrity because he saw me Model The Way. I don’t know what happened to the cashier but I hope that my actions helped give her a second chance to work through her problems. It gave me a valuable lesson on how our actions not only alter life for ourselves, but for others.

    • Steven,
      Sorry that this comment ended up in moderation. It deserved to be front page, above-the-fold. What an awesome story.
      I’m really glad you shared it!
      Keep leading with your best!

  • Thank you for that reminder. I can transfer that message daily, when it pertains to the young people I encounter as a teacher.

  • Cannot help but think of Hillary Clinton using her personal email server for State Department communications. Keeping clear boundaries is essential when serving the public.

    I know that some readers of this site complain about any discussion involving politics, but politics requires leadership, and that is what this site is about.

  • It was just GREAT having Jennifer as our Governor here in Michigan. She made us all proud!
    The lines have indeed become blurred, and integrity is essential at EVERY level and in every setting.
    THANKS for the reminder to all.

  • This is such a great lesson to teach and to live by, whether you work in politics or the private sector. “Taking care of the little things” is a good habit to start at any point in life.

  • Thanks for sharing Dan!

    The little things really do make a difference. Earlier this semester, I wrote an email to my freshman english teacher from high school whom I considered my mentor​ throughout high school. I thanked him for being a mentor and for inspiring me to apply to Berkeley. He was very surprised to hear that he was my mentor, to him, he was just doing what felt right.

    You never really know who you might inspire!

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