Last week was the traditional Lao New Year, reminding me of the things I miss from Laos, such as the best mangos in the world.
It also makes me think about inspiring human beings I have met, and how you might come across role models where you least expect it.
When asked about their role models many mention the obvious and famous ones, from Emma Watson to Nelson Mandela.
If you take a closer look, you might be able to find outstanding role models among those often ignored. I did.
Madame May was the cleaner in our office. This is not her full name, but that is what we called her. She would probably be very embarrassed, if she knew what I am writing about her; so, out of respect, I will not reveal her true name.
Here is why she became my role model.
Strong Work Ethics
She had one of the strongest work ethics I have ever encountered. She delivered high quality work; and was extremely disciplined, even after decades in the office, with a modest salary. The office was spotless, and probably the cleanest in the whole of Vientiane. And never, during my time there, did she lower her standards.
Few people fit the description ‘other-centred’ better than her. She always put others and her job first. She stayed behind till late night to clean up when we had a party in the office, or came on weekends to wipe the entrance after a storm.
Madame May had little education, and only spoke a few words of English, but she was not hard to understand. Kindness was her weapon, though she was not in any way aware of it. And with a sincere dedication to help and serve others, that shone through in her body language, verbal communication was not all that important.
She always treated others kindly and with respect, be it international staff and missions coming and going, or any of the local staff. Despite staff and guests not always showing her the respect she deserved. There were more than one of our guests who would not have passed “the waiter test.”
Being anything but honest was not within her horizon, and she was never part of any of the usual gossip and internal bikery you find in most work places.
Buddhism was her compass, and every morning she was up at dawn to give food to the monks processioning through the streets.
Vices cum virtues
But then of course, virtues can also be vices. We tried to tell her to go home after a long day’s work, and said we could do the dishes, but she was hard to convince.
Even worse, it was almost impossible to persuade her to seek much needed medical care. Costs her insurance would cover. We tried both begging and intimidation, but she was adamant. I do not know her real reason. Whether it was related to her faith, fear of surgery or something else. However, I also saw it as proof of her strong integrity. Despite her kindness, she was very much aware of her own boundaries.
So, do not forget to look for role models in unexpected places. A prerequisite is of course that you actually look. Whenever I feel and urge to lower my standards, telling myself I am too tired; or tempted to procrastinate (‘tomorrow, tomorrow’) I think of Madame May, and realize I have no excuses.
Dear Madame May:
I hope you enjoy your life as a pensioner, surrounded by your family and grandchildren, and that you finally allow yourself to just sit down and relax. During my time in Laos I used to say that if your compatriots had the same work ethics as you, the country would have been out of poverty a long time ago.