One of the guiding principles of the ATHENA Leadership Model to enable enlightened, successful leadership is: Giving Back.
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” – Mother Teresa.
Perhaps you’ve heard the starfish fable. Martha Mayhood Mertz, founder of ATHENA International, introduces the “Give Back” principle by sharing it in her best-selling book, Becoming ATHENA: Eight Principles of Enlightened Leadership.
One day, a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, the man asked, “What are you doing?”
The boy replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds or thousands of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.
Smiling at the man, he said: “I made a difference for that one.”
ATHENA International urges leaders to give back, to offer committed service to our colleagues, community and world. Being able to say, “I made a difference for that one” – knowing that our actions matter gives us the fuel we need to carry on.
In my work at the Adult Literacy League, there’s no shortage of heartwarming stories about our students’ successes and how these successes have helped to improve their lives and the lives of their family members. Angela*dropped out of school here in Orlando when she was pregnant with her first child in the 10th grade. Fast-forward 10 years and two more children, Angela is struggling to help her son with his homework, her middle child has been diagnosed with a learning disability and Angela realizes that the only way to make a better life for her family is to complete her education so that she is able to help her son (Angela’s own mother can’t read or write and there wasn’t much value placed on education in the home when she was growing up) and her daughters. After years of hard work and the infinite patience of a few volunteers, Angela earned her GED. She didn’t stop there – she’s in her fourth term at Valencia College, studying social work. She wants to be able to help young moms, just like herself.
I don’t think that Angela’s tutor feels that she made a huge difference in society. But I know she has. She made a difference for “that one” – in Angela. Additionally, Angela is changing things for her children, and for the children she will work with in her future career in social work.
ATHENA leaders strive for success not just for its own sake, but because success gives us more traction in advancing the greater good. It is our obligation to create a worthy legacy and to serve others. It is through Giving Back that we are able to truly grow and flourish and succeed.
*name changed to protect the anonymity of a real Adult Literacy League student
About the Author:
Gina Berko-Solomon is the Chief Development Officer at the Adult Literacy League, a nonprofit organization providing educational opportunities to adults in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. The Adult Literacy League’s mission is: to educate adults to become self-sufficient members of society and to advocate on behalf of adult and family literacy. Gina was a member of the inaugural class of ATHENA NextGen in Orlando in 2014.