I often find myself asking the question “how do we recognize a person’s character and virtue?” What do we look at, look for, or measure to quantify someone’s ethical make-up? For me, one of the first texts is “does this person say what they mean, mean what they say, and act accordingly?”
But lately, I’ve taken to asking a second question. “Does this person readily admit his or her mistakes and take the necessary and proper steps to correct them?”
Many years ago I was part of a sales organization. I started off as a salesman with a local territory and after 3 years was made a regional sales manager. Dealing with the home office, the shipping department, my sales force, and our customers was like attending a post-graduate course in understanding people and their ways of handling mistakes. I learned that mistakes happen, and they happen frequently. Sometimes the consequences are minimal but often they create a big mess.
When a person makes the same mistake with regularity it usually means they are untrained, unmotivated, or unable. This becomes a personnel problem, and in some cases where training doesn’t solve the problem, it is often best solved through termination. But this may not tell us much about the person’s character. Good people with strong values may be unable to complete certain tasks.
Where we get a glimpse into character is watching the way a person admits the mistake, taking full responsibility, and then works to clean up the mess. I have found that when good people make mistakes, they own up to them, and get to work fixing them as best they can, even if it hurts. This takes character, and integrity, and a greater desire to be good than simply to look good.
In our society the virtue of honesty in this regard is becoming more and more rare simply because the cost of being honest has risen dramatically. Today, admitting you made a mistake, or a bad decision, or acted in haste, immediately becomes ammunition for your opponents. They will seize upon the situation like an eagle on a salmon, gripping it so tightly they seem both unwilling and unable to let go.
Sadly, this high cost of honesty has pushed many to develop ways of spinning the facts – even when their mistakes are obvious – in order to deflect any blame. A fascinating book on this is aptly titled “Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me.” It chronicles the steady push of our culture to defend, deny, or obfuscate the facts to the place where there is always some measure of plausible deniability. We see things go wrong everyday while at the same time we are told no one is responsible.
This being true, when someone stands up and admits an error, a mistake, or a poor decision, and is willing to work to clean up the mess or correct the situation, what we have is strong evidence of true character. Not only must we demand leaders who say what they mean and mean what they say, but we must also demand that they be honest about their missteps and work to alleviate any negative consequences. And until we become a nation of perfect individuals, we must continue to applaud those with a strong internal commitment to integrity and honesty rather than shoot them down with their own bullets. Honesty will only blossom where forgiveness is available.
We need leaders – parents, teachers, managers, pastors, civic leaders, politicians, etc – who are not afraid to tell us what they really believe, and are committed to acting in accordance with those beliefs. And when their actions turn out to cause a mess we need them to stand up and tell us so, admitting their error, and at the same time working hard to fix the problems they have caused. For our part, we need to be willing to admit our own foibles, and offer understanding and forgiveness to those whose sincerity, honesty, and ability to learn from their mistakes deserve it.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.