Character is established in a defining moment

When my oldest son graduated from high school, I gave him a book called Real Life Begins After High School. I love to read and, unfortunately, he doesn’t, so it sat unused. I decided that I would read it cover to cover, and over the course of the summer before he went off to college, I could share the nuggets with him. “Helicopter Mom,” you are thinking? Maybe, but remember, this was my first to leave the nest!

It is now 8 years later, and he survived college and has a professional job. He is maturing every day–it is a life-long process–and no real surprise that he has his head on straight and a great sense of values. But one of the things I read in that book has stuck with me because it puts words to my feelings about character.

“Character,” as defined by the authors Bickel, Jantz and Barry, is “what you do when no one is looking”. Did you ever look at someones else’s test paper for that one elusive answer? If you order a cup of coffee at Starbucks and the barrista gives you an extra dollar as change and doesn’t realize it, do you give it back? When you do your taxes, do you report cash income? If you make a promise or commitment to someone, do you keep it? Do you promise customers one thing and deliver another? This is tough stuff. We are basically all well-intentioned good-hearted people who try to do the right thing. So why, when no one is looking, might we occasionally not do the right thing?

Is it because we know no one is looking? Is it so small that it doesn’t really matter? Maybe, I deserve a little reward today for all those hard times I have had lately? I can see that. I have probably transgressed a few times myself.

Integrity is a funny thing. It belongs uniquely to you. NO ONE can take it away, but you can freely give it away. Why ever would someone want to do that? Once given away, it is nearly impossible to get back.

We all make mistakes. The most common one I run into in business are companies which find reasons to not take responsibility for their poor service:

  • The airline which sends me a letter explaining why they lose bags, and it is the systems fault (Canada Air)
  • The travel agent which takes my money and does not provide contracted services (Caldwell Travel)
  • The cell phone company which threatens me with a contract I never signed and says it is not their job to provide proof (Sprint, several years ago)

Fortunately, these are the exceptions. Most companies really strive to a good job, and when it doesn’t work, they make it right. As business people and potential customers, we owe it to ourselves and the greater good to review our own actions that might be inconsistent with our values–to right the gaffs in our service, to speak up when things aren’t right and to call others out when they mess up, give ’em a chance to fix it, and if they don’t, let others know. Let’s give people a greater incentive to do the right thing!

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