The Most Powerful Relationship Commandment

Steve Pfeiffer had just stepped down as chairman of one of the largest law firms in the United States, Fulbright & Jaworski (now Norton Rose Fulbright).

Elected and reelected three times by his partners, he served three terms as chairman over ten years. Why was Steve Pfeiffer reelected so many times? Leadership. He’s smart and has excellent judgment, humility and a deft, intuitive touch with people. He knows how to get people aligned around a vision and a strategy.

His accomplishments are numerous and impressive. And yet, unlike some very successful people, it’s never gone to his head. On a trip we took on the Amtrak Acela from Washington DC to New York, he spent as much time chatting with the porter on the Amtrak train as he did talking to the CEO of one of his clients on his cellphone.

Nearly 40 years later, Steve recounted a story that explains much about who he is today and about the real meaning of the famous parable of the Good Samaritan.

“I’m sitting in my parent’s living room. It’s 9 pm and there’s a knock on the door, strange for this time of night.

“The loud knock takes me by surprise. I’m unsure if I should answer.

“I wait and listen. Another knock. Finally, I open it. Standing in front of me is a young, African-American man in a blue Air Force uniform. He is standing erect and tall. His uniform is pressed to perfection. I have never seen this young man before.

“The young man introduces himself as Clancy Williams, and asks for Ben Pfeiffer, my dad.

“I call for my father. When he comes, a big smile breaks out on his face. He welcomes Clancy like a long-lost son. They talk animatedly about his Air Force career and how his mother is doing. I watch their interaction, and I’m puzzled. This young man doesn’t just know my dad, he treats him almost like he is his own father! There’s an intimate quality to their interactions. Yet, I had never heard his name. They talk and hug, and after an hour or so Clancy Williams leaves.

“Later that night, I learned who he was. A woman who worked in the building where my father had an accounting practice was a single mother. She had very limited means. One of her children was Clancy.

“My dad helped her out and took an interest in her children. When Clancy was a senior in high school, Mrs. Williams asked my father to speak with him about his future. My father apparently told him he either had to go to college or enter the military to get some experience. Clancy chose the military.

“As I got older I learned that my father often helped those around him, whenever he could, in any way he could. He never publicized or talked about what he was doing.

“As a Christian I know the story of the good Samaritan from Luke Chapter 10 in the New Testament. After Jesus teaches his followers to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ a lawyer asks Him, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Jesus answers by telling the story of the Samaritan who helps the injured man on the side of the road. My father didn’t talk about this stuff, he just did it.”

What modern readers of this story often don’t realize is that the Samaritans were loathed by the Israelites at the time—they were considered unclean and untouchable. To risk your life to help a Samaritan on the side of the road went way beyond the call of normal duty. It dramatically reinforces the point of the story: Everyone is our neighbor and deserves love and help when in need.

After hearing Steve’s story, I understood why he is as friendly and comfortable with the Amtrak porter as with a CEO of a large corporation. Why he has quietly mentored a handful of young men from fatherless homes, helping with the cost of their education. Why he hosted Wesleyan graduates from African nations at his house, until they could get settled in their careers. Why he helped a young girl from Sierra Leone get a visa and travel to the United States to be treated for horrific damage she suffered while undergoing a forced circumcision. Why he serves on the board of directors for Project Hope, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Africa America Institute, and many others.

He summed it up for me in very simple words—giving us a powerful relationship principle: “My father taught me that you should always be looking for ways to help the people around you. There’s always something you can do, even if it’s a very small thing. There’s always someone around you who has a need.”

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