It’s More Important to Be Kind than Clever

I feel this story does a nice job of reminding us the importance of making a difference to our patients and their families… even if it means stepping a bit outside the lines.

One of the more heart-warming stories to zoom around the Internet
lately involves a young man, his dying grandmother, and a bowl of clam
chowder from Panera Bread. It’s a little story that offers big lessons
about service, brands, and the human side of business — a story that
underscores why efficiency should never come at the expense of humanity.

The story, as told in AdWeek, goes like this: Brandon Cook,
from Wilton, New Hampshire, was visiting his grandmother in the
hospital. Terribly ill with cancer, she complained to her grandson that
she desperately wanted a bowl of soup, and that the hospital’s soup was
inedible (she used saltier language). If only she could get a bowl of
her favorite clam chowder from Panera Bread! Trouble was, Panera only
sells clam chowder on Friday. So Brandon called the nearby Panera and
talked to store manager Suzanne Fortier. Not only did Sue make clam
chowder specially for Brandon’s grandmother, she included a box of
cookies as a gift from the staff.

It was a small act of kindness that would not normally make
headlines. Except that Brandon told the story on his Facebook page, and
Brandon’s mother, Gail Cook, retold the story on Panera’s fan page. The
rest, as they say, is social-media history. Gail’s post generated
500,000 (and counting) “likes” and more than 22,000 comments on Panera’s
Facebook page. Panera, meanwhile, got something that no amount of
traditional advertising can buy — a genuine sense of affiliation and
appreciation from customers around the world.
Marketing types have latched on to this story as an example of the
power of social media and “virtual word-of-mouth” to boost a company’s
reputation. But I see the reaction to Sue Fortier’s gesture as an
example of something else — the hunger among customers, employees, and
all of us to engage with companies on more than just dollars-and-cents
terms. In a world that is being reshaped by the relentless advance of
technology, what stands out are acts of compassion and connection that
remind us what it means to be human.

As I read the story of Brandon and his grandmother, I thought back to a lecture delivered two years ago by Jeff Bezos,
founder and CEO of, to the graduating seniors of my alma
mater, Princeton University. Bezos is nothing if not a master of
technology — he has built his company, and his fortune, on the rise of
the Internet and his own intellect. But he spoke that day not about
computing power or brainpower, but about his grandmother — and what he
learned when he made her cry.

Even as a 10-year-old boy, it turns out, Bezos had a steel-trap mind
and a passion for crunching numbers. During a summer road trip with his
grandparents, young Jeff got fed up with his grandmother’s smoking in
the car — and decided to do something about it. From the backseat, he
calculated how many cigarettes per day his grandmother smoked, how many
puffs she took per cigarette, the health risk of each puff, and
announced to her with great fanfare, “You’ve taken nine years off your

Bezos’s calculations may have been accurate — but the reaction was
not what he expected. His grandmother burst into tears. His grandfather
pulled the car off to the side of the road and asked young Jeff to step
out. And then his grandfather taught a lesson that this now-billionaire
decided to share the with the Class of 2010: “My grandfather looked at
me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, ‘Jeff, one
day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.'”

That’s a lesson I wish more businesspeople understood — a lesson that
is reinforced by the reaction to this simple act of kindness at Panera
Bread. Indeed, I experienced something similar not so long ago, and
found it striking enough to devote an HBR blog post
to the experience. In my post, I told the story of my father, his
search for a new car, a health emergency that took place in the middle
of that search — and a couple of extraordinary (and truly human)
gestures by an auto dealer that put him at ease and won his loyalty.
“What is it about business that makes it so hard to be kind?” I asked
at the time. “And what kind of businesspeople have we become when small
acts of kindness feel so rare?”

That’s what’s really striking about the Panera Bread story — not that
Suzanne Fortier went out of her way to do something nice for a sick
grandmother, but that her simple gesture attracted such global attention
and acclaim.

So by all means, encourage your people to embrace technology, get
great at business analytics, and otherwise ramp up the efficiency of
everything they do. But just make sure all their efficiency doesn’t come
at the expense of their humanity. Small gestures can send big
signals about who we are, what we care about, and why people should want
to affiliate with us. It’s harder (and more important) to be kind than

1 Comment
  • Jodi Ziegler
    Posted at 16:07h, 02 January Reply

    I have always said that common sense should never be sacrificed for the sake of dollars and cents. Nice story.

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