My Boss Is A Mensch: A Rare Gift, Indeed

Bosses From Hell

I fully sympathize with those who are forced to work for”bosses from hell.”  In my HR role, I do my best to help organizations weed out these bad-actors as quickly as possible (for any number of legal reasons, to say nothing of the damage these folks wreck on the people who are subjected to them).  In fact, this was one of the primary reasons that I got into HR in the first place — seeing the impact that bosses with unrestrained egos and boorish temperments had on family members and friends subjected to their whims.

This Isn’t About That

This isn’t about any of that, though, as I’ve always been fortunate to work for good people   who — though certainly not “perfect” in any way — worked hard, took a genuine interest in their employees, and had the best interests of the company and their employees at heart.  This post isn’t even about any of those other former bosses, though.  It’s about one boss who stood out above all the rest, for one reason.  You see, he’s a mensch.  And what a rare and valuable thing that is.

So, What Is A Mensch?

Mensch. I was fascinated by this odd and exotic word ever since first hearing it years ago.  Something brought it to mind recently and, as I don’t speak Yiddish, I went in search of a formal definition.  Not being satisfied with what I found initially — the definitions I was seeing seemed too luke-warm, too unexceptional — I consulted my friend and colleague, Paula.  A  few clicks later, she pointed me to the perfect answer.

By way of blogger Guy Kawasaki’s “How To Change The World,” we find that Leo Rosten, the Yiddish expert and author of The Joys of Yiddish, defines mensch this way:

Someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being “a real mensch” is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.

Yep — that had it down perfectly.  This was Martin to a “t.”

Taking It A Step Further

Guy has done a great job of taking this further, so if he doesn’t mind, I’ll excerpt a few more of his own thoughts on “what this looks like”:

  1. Helping people who cannot help you.
    A mensch helps people who cannot ever return the favor. He doesn’t care if the recipient is rich, famous, or powerful.
  2. Helping without the expectation of return.
    A mensch helps people without the expectation of return–at least in this life.
  3. Helping many people.
    Menschdom is a numbers game: you should help many people, so you don’t hide your generosity under a bushel. (Of course, not even a mensch can help everyone. To try to do so would mean failing to help anyone.)
  4. Doing the right thing the right way.
    A mensch always does the right thing the right way. He would never cop an attitude like, “We’re not as bad as Enron.” There is a bright, clear line between right and wrong, and a mensch never crosses that line.
  5. Paying back society.
    A mensch realizes that he’s blessed. These blessings come with the obligation to pay back society. The baseline is that we owe something to society–we’re not a doing a favor by paying back society.

What Does He Do That’s So Special?

You don’t know Martin, so let me try to answer this question with some universal qualities.  In doing so, I hope that you’ll recognize someone in your workplace who is a true mensch, even if you’ve never matched that word with that person before.

A mensch is someone who does and is things like . . .

. . . credibility and comfort — the person everyone in the office goes to for personal and professional counsel — even if they don’t report to him (and even if they’re  not actually in his section of the organization)

. . . being present for you — when you go to them for advice (or to “vent,” or to seek out a kind smile or an understanding nod), you get the sense that they’re really listening to you — i.e., that they truly care to help you find an answer, whatever it may be — and that their advice is born out of true concern for your best interests

. . . sincerity — someone who — though they might not be great at recalling names or dates — remembers that you had a big family event over the weekend that was really important to you, and who asks you about it on Monday out of sincere interest, and who is genuinely thrilled when you tell them that it worked out just as you had hoped (or who is truly sad for you if some disappointment or other unexpected calamity came about instead)

. . . respectful — someone who — regardless of the differences between your politics and their own, or your religious beliefs and their own — takes you and your concerns seriously and respectfully (and tries to learn from and understand your views)

. . . makes things better — someone who has the self-discipline to “hear you out”  (even when he is tired, exhausted, or otherwise burdened), knowing that your concerns are important to you and thus deserve his fullest attention, and who — regardless of whether or not anything can be done about the problem — always has you leaving their office better (more peaceful, more prepared, more eager, more accepting, etc.) than when you went in.

. . . puts others’ interests over his own, for the greater good — someone who subjugates their personal best interests (time and time again) for the best interests of the department, or of the organization as a whole. A mensch isn’t perfect and sometimes his choices may inadvertently “hurt” those closest to him (his department) when “taking one for the team” negatively impacts them — but which they understand as being for the “greater good” (eventually, if somewhat reluctantly).

. . . resilience, fortitude (and selflessness) — someone who, (true story) if you ask them to comment on the long (350 pages) but boring but also important (HR policies) manual that you wrote, will sit down and read and notate each and every page, and who will have the patience (even though they’re supposedly not a “details guy”) to sit with you and review all of their comments — page-by-page, comment-by-comment —  solely for the purpose of helping you and not because they’re going to see any personal benefit from the resulting document

. . . trust — when all is said and done, someone who you know with certainty that, if you ever had a personal or professional crisis at 3 o’clock in the morning and you had the chance to make one call (one “lifeline,” if you will) and one call only, this would be the person you would trust enough to call — knowing implicitly that they would respond and help in any way that they could.

Who Is This?

This is how I think of Martin — and, more importantly, it’s how anyone who knows him thinks of him.  I know of no better or more meaningful tribute than to say that those that work for and with him consider him a mensch in the best and fullest sense of the term.  And for this, we are very thankful.

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Postscript: I hope and trust that there is a mensch in your professional life (and especially in your personal life, of course).  I’d love to hear your stories.  (Or just send them a copy of this.  They’ll understand).

Related Post: The HR Bartender has written a wonderful piece on Servant Leadership that speaks to many of the mensch-like qualities of humble leaders.

3 responses to “My Boss Is A Mensch: A Rare Gift, Indeed

  1. A brief excursion on the meaning:

    “Mensch” is originally German with the meaning of human (and almost certainly cognate with “man”).

    Jiddish draws heavily on German, and the word likely drifted in meaning over time. (For all I know, it may stil be used in the original meaning in Jiddish too, in parallel.)

    • Thanks so much for sharing the etymology with us — much appreciated. I really like the thought that the original meaning was “human” — there is great symbolism there, I think (i.e., that this is the goal of being human). Thanks again.

  2. Nice post! And many thanks for the HR Bartender mention.

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