The folks who know what’s coming are probably grinning from ear to ear right now. This story has followed me for years, and people love busting my chops about it. I’m going to tell it again, though, because I still believe it contains an important lesson about integrity.

The story

A long time ago, in my idealistic youth, my CEO called a company-wide meeting. I don’t remember much about the meeting. It was either a pep talk or a congratulatory meeting on a good month we had. That part isn’t important. What is important is this story the CEO told us.

Under the dimmed conference room lights, he talked about his childhood. He told us of the many times he would cut the grass for his father. Of course, back then all he had was a manual lawnmower which took a lot of effort to push. He would work, he told us, under the hot sun cutting every last blade of grass. When his father saw the great work he had done, he would take him to 7-Eleven. He would hand him a quarter (or a dime, I don’t remember all the details) and he would run to the counter to claim his reward. A Slurpee.

The moral of the story, he said, was that hard work should be rewarded. And I guess we had done something good, because he said we had been working very hard and deserved a reward. And, that reward, he concluded, was a free Slurpee. Just go to any 7-Eleven, he said, and tell them Bob Businessman (not his real name, obviously) sent you, and they will give you a free Slurpee in the flavor of your choice.

A man, giving a speech

And then…

What an inspiring story, relating the foundations of this man’s work ethic from his childhood to our jobs in the present, right? A man of integrity, for sure. Of course, everyone was wondering if he was serious or not. He assured us he was. But, he didn’t give us a specific 7-Eleven to go to. There were no coupons or vouchers to turn in. Did he contact every nearby 7-Eleven to set this up with them? The logistics of it just didn’t make sense. And then we figured it out.

Some examples of Slurpees

The date of the meeting was July 11th. 7/11 (remember, UK readers, we do our dates backwards in the states). Every year on July 11th, 7-Eleven declares it free Slurpee day.

For everyone.

In the entire country.

This is the part of the story my friends like to tell the most. They like to bring out this story like it’s an embarrassing picture from a junior high school dance. When we found out that the Slurpees would be free anyway, I got really mad about the whole situation.


A lesson on integrity

There’s something about the childhood story that isn’t stated explicitly but makes all the difference. By giving his son a quarter, the father’s reward involves giving up something he himself had earned. By contrast, the CEO’s reward to us was something we could’ve had for free anyway. He wasn’t giving up anything of value as part of that reward. This is more like taking the son to 7-Eleven and pulling a half-eaten, discarded Slurpee from the garbage for him to eat.

Giving up something that has value to reward another shows integrity and builds trust. It sends a strong message that the recipient is valued. By using someone else’s generosity in an attempt to inspire his workers, the CEO really only showed that he was not invested in us. He did not show that he had faith in us. In return, I lost a lot of faith in him as a leader.

To be fair, back when all this happened I wasn’t nearly as articulate about it. I was just a kid, and I was mad. Still, this story has stuck with me through the years as an important lesson about professional integrity. A true leader must give freely of themselves to foster trust. What experiences have you had that taught you about respect and integrity in your career? I would love to hear about them in the comments.