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Sunday, August 26, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: YOU TELL ME YOURS

An obituary in The Boston Globe for the renowned architect William J. LeMessurier, who died in June at 81, reminded me how powerful personal stories can be in bringing to life the impact our ethical choices can have. (William J. LeMessurier; designed City Hall - The Boston Globe)

In 1978, a year after work was completed on his design for the Citicorp tower in New York City, an engineering student told LeMessurier that flaws in his design could result in the building's collapse. LeMessurier discovered that the student was correct. He also found that because a steel contractor had chosen an inferior method of bolting joints to the one he had wanted, hurricane winds could possibly blow the building off its footings.

LeMessurier had a choice to make. Clearly, the contractor's decision went against his wishes and was not his responsibility. If he went public and revealed the building's flaws, there was a chance it could wreak havoc on his storied reputation.

But it didn't take him long to decide that, regardless of the tarnish it might bring upon his resume, he had to go public and fix the problem. He saw it as a "social obligation," according to a New Yorker magazine profile published in May 1995. "And the most wonderful part of my story is that when I did it, nothing bad happened." (THE FIFTY-NINE-STORY CRISIS [ABSTRACT] ) Indeed, his decision cast in stone his reputation as a man who put concerns about public safety above that of his own career.

Reading LeMessurier's obituary reminded me of a point I often make in talks about the importance of doing the right thing. I cite the obituary of a well-known journalist who had written for national magazines and newspapers and ended his career as a well-regarded newspaper editor. Yet his obituary cites the time he had been fired for allegedly plagiarizing a story from a competing publication. No matter how much he had accomplished before or after this incident, this momentary lapse of judgment became a significant part of his legacy.

Not everyone faces challenges of such magnitude. But we all have made decisions that would either make us proud or ashamed to be remembered by.

So now it's your turn to tell me your story. What one defining moment in your life paints a picture of who you are? Or, conversely, what moment if given the chance, would you like to do over?

A year ago when I asked readers to send in their stories, I received dozens of compelling, heartfelt stories about the moral quandaries they found themselves up against. That's why I'm again asking you to send me stories detailing your struggles. Provide as much detail as possible, but keep your submission to no more than 300 words. I'll run some of these stories in an upcoming column.

Those whose stories are used in that column will receive a copy of my book, The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006).

Include your name, address and telephone number, and submit your story by Oct. 10 to: rightthing@nytimes.com or "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many of us have made decisions that have impacted hundreds of people in very positive ways, but that one bad decision is what most people will choose to remember. I am always sadden by this, because the very individuals who select to remember the negative are usually more guilty of poor decsions than the person they chastise. We are all just one step away from some form of devestation. So be careful how you place your blame, because you may be next in line!

Anonymous said...

And Shakespeare put it so well in the mouth of Marc Anthony:
"The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones."