Leaving the World Better Than You Found It

Alex Acton
3 min readJun 6, 2017

Almost every day, I read headlines about embezzlement, insider trading or fraud. It’s so easy to find stories of people who’ve put their own interests above the interests of those around them.

In those cases, I’m reminded of the many oaths that we make young people take. Special codes of behavior that we hope young people can learn to embody. The Girl Scout slogan is “Do a good turn daily” and the longer meaning of the famous “Be Prepared” motto is actually “A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever she is needed. Willingness to serve is not enough; you must know how to do the job well, even in an emergency.”

The same is true with the Boy Scouts. The Scout Law says that a Boy Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And the core principle for interacting with the environment is to “leave no trace”. You can enjoy the environment as much as you want but you should leave it at least as good as you found it.

Or what about professional codes like the Hippocratic oath? Everyone knows “First, do no harm” (which actually isn't part of the oath), but there are some amazing gems in there.

I will remember… that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,”

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

What if each of us tried to live by a personal ethical code? How much better would the world be if our first principle was to leave the world and other people at least as well off as we found them? And what if we went one step further and committed to leaving things better than we found them?

Welcome to Servant Leadership.While the concept is much older, Robert Greenleaf articulated the idea of the Servant Leader in an essay in 1970. The core principle is that a Servant Leader is a servant first. Their goal is to help their community grow. By leaving people you meet and the community you serve better than you found it, you can achieve incredible things and leave no one behind.

No doubt, the idea is aspirational. It’s a long, hard process to continually invest in others, and even a practiced Servant Leader can get caught up in their own concerns.

But it’s something worth aspiring to. At the start of any project in any industry, you’ll ask yourself what the outcome should be. If your goal is always the growth and well-being of the people you work with, you simply can’t defraud them. You can’t steal from them. You can’t step on them on your rise to the top. The self-interested behavior that we read about every day is antithetical to Servant Leadership.

We all know how we should act. We know it so much that we wrote it down and codified it into a thousand childhood oaths, educational programs and professional codes of ethics.

But because we don’t focus on it every day, we lose our way. We stumble off the path, and with no one to guide us back, we stay in the wilderness and grow cynical and cold.

Who will you serve today? What good can you bring into the world before the sun sets again?

It may not be profound change, and it doesn’t need to be. Is there someone that you’ll interact with today that can be made happier or healthier for having met you?

If each of us worked every day to make the world a little better, it would get better fast. If we each committed to leaving things a little better than we found them, there’s no telling how amazing we could make the world.

Alex Acton

Professional Amateur & Avid Question Asker