Sunday, January 4, 2009

Taking the First Coin

One evening the students of the Rabbi Dov Ber, the Preacher of Mezritch, were sitting in the study hall. Each of them - Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev and Elimelekh of Lizhensk - would later found a great Hasidic dynasty, but in those days they were still young students.

Their discussion was interrupted when the caretaker rushed in shouting, “Kidnappers! Kidnappers! They’ve taken Yosef Isaacs!” He spotted the students and ran to them. “His life is in danger! The kidnappers demand a ransom of 600 gold coins by dawn or they will kill him! We must find a way to save Yosef Isaacs!”

“600 gold coins!” exclaimed Levi Yitzchak. “How could we possibly raise that much money? Even if every Jew in Mezritch donated all his worldly possessions, it would still not come to 600 gold coins. All we can do is pray to God that Yosef Isaacs is delivered from the kidnappers’ hands.”

“There is a way to raise 600 gold coins,” said Shneur Zalman thoughtfully. “There is one Jew in town who has that much money. Have you forgotten Velvel the Apostate?”

“Velvel?” snorted Elimelekh. “He left the Jewish people years ago. He even lives among the Gentile princes outside of town! His hatred of anything Jewish runs so deep that whenever a Jew approaches his palace he sends his pack of dogs to tear him limb from limb!”

“Even so,” said Shneur Zalman, “he is our only hope, for only he has enough money to pay such a ransom. I intend to go and ask him to help save his fellow Jew.”

Seeing Shneur Zalman’s determination, his friends insisted on accompanying him to protect him from harm.

“You may join me,” said Shneur Zalman, “but on one condition – you must both remain silent, and let me alone speak with Velvel.” They agreed and set off together.

Miraculously, they arrived at Velvel’s home without encountering any guard dogs, and knocked on the door. Velvel himself opened it. He was taken aback by the sight of the three Hasidic students.

“I see the Jews have forgotten how much I despise their visits,” he said. “I shall have to get more dogs!”

“Please, hear me out,” said Shneur Zalman. “We’ve come on an urgent mission.” Shneur Zalman explained the purpose of their visit – how Yosef Isaacs’ life hung in the balance, what a tragedy it would be for Yosef Isaacs’ wife and children if he were killed, the great reward that awaited any Jew who participated in the redemption of captives, and how the ransom was more than the Jewish community of Mezritch could raise without Velvel’s help.

Velvel was moved. “You’ve shown great courage in coming here,” he said. “Many years ago, I put something aside to donate to a worthy cause. I believe this is the occasion to give it. Wait here and I will bring it to you.” Shneur Zalman looked at his surprised friends triumphantly. Velvel returned and, with a flourish, he handed Shneur Zalman – a single penny!

“There you are, young man,” he said. “I wish you luck in raising the rest of the ransom.”

Levi Yitzhak and Elimelekh were about to rebuke Velvel for his miserliness. One penny, indeed! But Shneur Zalman silenced them with a look.

“Thank you so much,” said Shneur Zalman to Velvel. “I appreciate your effort to assist in our cause. May God reward you for your part in saving a fellow Jew’s life.” There was no irony in Shneur Zalman’s voice, only sincere gratitude. With that, Shneur Zalman turned to leave, with his stunned companions following him.

They had taken only a few steps when they heard Velvel’s voice behind them. “Wait! Perhaps I can find something else in the house to contribute.” They returned to the door, and Velvel reappeared after a few minutes to give them – two pennies! Again, Shneur Zalman was effusive in his thanks, and they turned to leave.

Velvel called them back a third time, and gave them ten pennies; the fourth time, a gold coin; the fifth time, five gold coins. Each time, Shneur Zalman was genuinely thankful, without a hint of reproof in his voice. They did not leave Velvel that night until he had donated the entire amount needed to rescue the captive – 600 gold coins.

As they walked back to town, Elimelekh asked in admiration, “How did you know that our mission to Velvel would be successful?”

“I knew that Velvel had within him the strength to give the entire sum, if only he could give the first penny,” said Shneur Zalman. “His problem was that no one was willing to take the first penny from him. Once I took it with sincere gratitude and encouragement, the wellsprings of his soul were opened up and he was able to give the entire amount.”

Moral: To Bring Out The Best In People, Expect The Best, But Be Willing To Take The First Penny

Shneur Zalman transforms Velvel because he believes that Velvel is capable of great deeds, and he understands the symbolic value of the first penny. This is the work of management in a nutshell: to take the first penny, what people think they can give, and then challenge them to meet ever higher expectations.

Think about the best manager you ever had. Was it someone who set low expectations and assigned you modest tasks that could be accomplished with reasonable effort? Probably not. That kind of manager doesn’t promote growth or stick in people’s minds. Or did your most memorable manager set high expectations, challenge you to do something ambitious, and give you the guidance that enabled you to succeed? Are you as a manager providing ambitious but achievable expectations, challenges and a sense of accomplishment to your team?

In the Real World

In his article “Pygmalion Inin Management”, J. Sterling Livingston proves that subordinates’ performance rises or falls to meet managers’ expectations. If managers’ expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent, while if their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor.

Livingston cites a number of experiments that prove this point. For example, at Metropolitan Life Insurance, salesmen were divided into a “superstaff” of high achievers and an “average” unit of salesmen who were considered merely adequate. The superstaff consistently exceeded sales goals, while the performance of salesmen in the average unit actually declined. Perhaps the superstaff’s improvement was due to their innate talent. The average salesmen’s performance decline can only be attributed to the decreased expectations from their superiors.

Another study of managers, this one at AT&T, demonstrated that their relative success, as measured by salary increases and promotions, depended largely on the company’s expectations.

As Eliza Doolittle says in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated.”


In my first performance review as a manager of Quality Assurance, I was proud to report to my boss that all the major bugs in the products that had shipped that year had been discovered in my lab rather than in the field.

To my surprise, my manager viewed my year very differently. He gave no sign of appreciation, but he was prolific in pointing out ways in which I had failed. “You didn’t build tools to speed up the testing process; you didn’t provide guidance to Engineering as to how they could reduce the number of bugs; you didn’t improve the method for tracking customer-discovered bugs.” I was flabbergasted. In one moment, my entire view of the year was turned upside down – I had been playing defense when I should have been playing offense! Obviously my manager should have told me sooner what he expected of me. And I would have liked to hear some positive feedback – he could have accepted my first penny more graciously. But, he did most emphatically ask me for the next penny, and the challenge spurred me on to accomplish things I didn’t know I was capable of achieving.

1 comment:

  1. Moshe,

    Your willingness to view your manager's feedback in a positive light and as a challenge says more about you than your manager. The fact is that your manager's feedback was toxic, and that you would never treat your subordinates like that.

    I suggest that you write a post on how you review your subordinates, and show that one can spur them on to greater challenges without causing them a heart attack.