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A lesson on leadership: One hand washes the other.

Louie Bacaj
Louie Bacaj
2 min read
A lesson on leadership: One hand washes the other.

Where I grew up in The Bronx, in the Italian restaurant that I used to busboy in, I would hear the mafia guys who ate there say, "Don't mention it; one hand washes the other." I was young back then; I started busing tables at 14. But even I could discern that this was about a favor in exchange for another favor. I learned a lot watching them from a distance.

We might look down at this today, but maybe Mafia members know something about human behavior many of us tend to forget. When trust exists, then favors can be handed out generously because there is trust that they will come back in the future.

After all, the origin of "one hand washes the other" included a second part: "one man helps another."

The Mafia rarely consists of nice guys, plenty of wise guys, and the things they value are probably the toughest qualities to find in human beings. This one particular quality trust is so foundational that we tend to forget that without it nothing would be possible. As my online friends recently remined me even in the age of trustless protocols humans operate under a different code. Humanities entire dominance as a species is predicated on trust. Without trust there would be no cooperation and without cooperation there would be no human dominance. People assume one hand washing the other is a bad thing but it's the only thing when it comes to trust.

The Mafia didn't like to communicate very much because someone was always watching. But if they had trust, they didn't need to communicate. In any interaction between people, the amount of communication needed for them to be in sync is proportional to their level of trust.

Ben Horowitz, in the book What You Do Is Who You Are, says:

"If I trust you completely, then I require no explanation or communication of your actions at all, because I know that whatever you are doing is in my best interests. On the other hand, if I don't trust you in the slightest, then no amount of talking, explaining, or reasoning will have any effect on me, because I will never believe you are telling me the truth and acting in my best interests."

So what did I learn from the Mafia? Trust is incredibly important; you can't lead or have good communication without trust. And nothing builds trust like one hand washing the other, "one person helping another."

Let me stop talking about what I learned watching them before I get whacked.