Life on the Way to the Courthouse: Last train

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 31, 2019

By Mike Wells

Some of my fraternity brothers and I were studying that night for mid-terms in Alderman Library at UVA when we got the news.

Ken Craft came in to tell us that the train delivering the casket of Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme allied commander in WWII and the first post-WWII president we remembered, was making an engine-switch stop at the train yard in Charlottesville. The president was on his final journey from lying in state in our nation’s capitol to his resting place in his home state of Kansas. Did we want to go and pay our respects?

We all piled in our cars and went to the train yard. We chattered along about all the things college kids talk about, especially during test time. But when we got out of our cars and we could see the lighted train car carrying the president, the talking stopped. There in the lighted train were the servicemen on the four corners of the casket of the leader who made the call to go when the weather was still uncertain for the Normandy D-Day Invasion.

Many of us knew he had written a letter before the invasion, later revealed, taking full responsibility for a failed invasion, had the bad weather then more than a possibility actually developed on the chosen day, preventing a successful invasion. Even though he chose the option which had been recommended by Allied meteorologists. A rare stand-up claim of responsibility, that.

Recently another WWII hero who became our president passed away, and the last leg of his journey home was by train. President George H. W. Bush, a decorated WWII fighter pilot who dropped out of school to become our nation’s youngest pilot, had made a key promise when he ran for president that he would not raise taxes. But as president he had to make the hard call to raise taxes to assure the fiscal success of the economy, then in a hard spot. He had every reason to believe, and he did believe, privately, that his decision to agree to raise taxes would likely lead to his defeat for a second term. It was the right decision for the country in the long term, although he certainly knew it would not be measurably apparent by election day that year.

His decision led in large part to a post-election decade of unparalleled economic growth, for which his successor, ironically, got the initial credit. He paid the most significant political price for his significantly principled decision.

Most of us who have any kind of leadership role in an organization have occasion when we can take full responsibility for our decisions, or not. But surprisingly when we take responsibility, whether it is with clients, constituents or the public, we learn there is more understanding and acceptance than we might realize.

What principled experiences and role models teach us is that people want leaders of character, and those they can trust. They do not put much stock in the long run in excuses and shifting responsibility to others when they are dealing with the one whose name is on the door (you).

The downside of taking responsibility is generally overcome by the size of the character of the one that makes the hard and uncertain choice. But it is this lens of character, a sort of double vision, which helps leaders who take these actions.

There are times, however, that the value of the long view, fully revealed in time around the coming corner of life, cannot yet be seen by others. A lesser leader in these circumstances will sometimes look for a scapegoat or make excuses to avoid the blame, especially when one’s personal advancement may be on the line.

But leaders like these presidents understand the harsh lesson that with principled leadership there is no way around it: sometimes you just have to take the scuff with the shine and own your decisions. One’s personal career is secondary to the principled arc carved out by what is, at the end of the day, the right thing to do.

What I’ve learned while writing Life on the Way to the Courthouse columns is this: these WWII heroes may have taken their last train home, but we all can catch a ride on their good names when we learn to take responsibility for our actions, whatever our position or profession may be. And we have the fortitude to work against the doubt when the harder but character-based choice cannot yet be seen by others, even though a personal interest might be gained in the interim by finding a cheap scapegoat. Because a leader looking for a cheap scapegoat over the principle of the body is a leader taking you to a place that is not worth going.

Mike Wells is an attorney with Wells Law in Winston-Salem.