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.