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Mentors, Fairness and Ahimsa (do no harm)

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David Suzuki’s ongoing birthday celebrations got me thinking for the past few weeks about my mentors. Do you remember your first mentor? Someone who has really influenced how you think and behave? I remember mine – Erline Evans. Everyone wanted to work with Erline because she managed with such ease. She was honest, clear, confident, direct and had high standards. She genuinely wanted each person on her team to develop to their highest potential. She took the time to give thoughtful, balanced feedback and to say thank you. She always acknowledged others’ contribution both personally and publicly. She valued mindfulness, hard work, and pursuit of excellence. She rewarded contribution with acknowledgement, recognition and pay.

She would challenge. She would disagree. She could get really angry. BUT I never saw her be unkind, unfair or under-handed. She never ever embarrassed or shamed anyone. She applied the same rules to her own behaviour. She was highly regarded, but not everyone loved her. As David Suzuki said in his own documentary in CBC’s The Nature of Things “if you stand for anything you will make people angry”. . Erline stood for something and her word was her word.

Erline was up for a promotion and it was a big deal – it would have meant a bit more pay but a much better pension outcome, greater responsibility, and more budget. It would have made big difference to the mother and brother she supported. It was widely known that she had exceeded expectations in all the evaluation categories. We waited for her promotion to be announced so we could take her out to celebrate.

It didn’t happen at all. When I found out I was furious. THIS IS SO UNFAIR! I actually said that to her.  It wasn’t just that Erline treated me well that I admired her so much and wanted to stand up for her. She had earned this.

I heard Erline say there are no ‘self-made’ men and that she was only as good as her team. She said she wouldn’t build her reputation, business or fortune on the backs of others. But what she did next floored me. She said “The world is only as fair as we make it…for others”. She didn’t the change ratings or take away bonuses even in subsequent reviews to get her promotion or pay raise. Erline was her actions. I will never forget this as long as I have memory.

In yoga, we would call Erline’s action Ahimsa (do no harm). I often wonder what she would say about how we have learned to treat each other. What feedback would she have for me? Sadly, Erline died in 2006 after a short battle with cancer. I still see her red lipstick, smiling face and brightly coloured print suits. I hear her beautiful Caribbean accent and her words ringing in my ears:

The world is only as fair as we make it… for others.