Thousands of Human Starfish, The Story of an Extreme Decency

The Time Before:

Steve Harrison became a client of mine in 1995. From that first engagement and a number of others over the years, Steve and I became close friends, as did our wives, Barbara and Shirley. It would be fair to say that Steve became more or less a disciple of my kind of crisis management and other management and leadership recovery techniques. He was already known as Mr. Decency throughout his industry. Something that further deepened our relationship. In 2014, Steve and I decided to write a book on civility and decency. Something that has long since largely disappeared from American culture. There are still too few signs of these important cultural qualities returning anytime soon.  

The Diagnosis:

In 2014, my wife of 50 years was diagnosed with bilateral ovarian cancer. That evening we had dinner with Steve and Shirley and among the topics of conversation was this new frightening development in Barbara’s life.

The First Call:

The next day, Steve and Shirley called together and talked to us briefly about what they learned the night before and offered to be helpful in any way that they could. For Barbara and I, this was the beginning of a long journey cumulating in her death from Alzheimer’s in August of 2019.

The Next 2,999 Calls:

Following that first phone call from Steve and Shirley, they called us nearly every single day from the time of Barbara’s diagnosis with cancer and the follow-up diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The number of phone calls from these two dear friends from that first conversation to a kind of final conversation in late 2019, the Harrisons had talked to us almost 3000 times. Stop a moment, take a breath, and realize what a totally amazing gift for a couple of human beings to do for another couple of human beings. Steve and I finished the book, “The Decency Code, The Leader’s Path to Building Integrity and Trust,” and it was published by McGraw Hill in 2021. We discussed another book project going forward, but nature intervened, and Steve passed away in July of 2021.

Steve’s Legacy Lives On:

I’ll never have the opportunity to repay this extraordinary decency. Shirley and I do keep in touch. And I write, quote, and talk about Steve whenever I can.  He was such an extraordinary friend and his 2005 book, “The Manager’s Book of Decencies, How Small Gestures (he called them small decencies) Build Great Companies,” from McGraw Hill is a classic business book in the field of decency and civility.

Steve’s Life Metaphor:

Steve’s favorite story and the metaphor for his life was about a person searching for seashells on the seashore and coming across a starfish unlikely to survive being caught aground. Almost absent-mindedly the man picked up the starfish and tossed it back into the sea.

Human Starfish:

In the course of that starfish’s life, it will reproduce thousands of times and produce an extraordinary number of offsprings and generations. Steve’s company Lee Hect Harrison, which he and two colleagues founded in the late 1990’s, and later acquired by Adecco Inc., the world’s largest part-time work placement company, made Steve’s company now the LHH division of  Adecco, the world’s largest outplacement firm. The purpose of the LHH division of Adecco is to help people intentionally unemployed by large businesses to learn new job-finding skills and other techniques to regain employment and return to productive lives. You might say his company has a way of returning human starfish to the working world by the thousands every year.

What an Amazing Legacy:

Decencies come in all sizes and shapes. This is the most extreme, miraculous, and wonderful decency for two people I’ve ever seen. Give it a try.