When Answering the Call for Civility, Emulate George and Bob

To commemorate Martin Luther King Day, our CEO shared some messages from our nation’s leaders about civility and his thoughts about them. He asked us to think about what civility means to us, to do something for someone in the spirit of civility on our day off, and then tell him about it. After looking at George and Bob (pictured here)  for inspiration, here’s how I responded:

During my junior year of college, I was an exchange student at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  That year, I learned some important lessons in civility from examples set by the men for whom the school is named: George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

Both men revitalized the school in perilous times.  In 1796, Washington rescued the school from the brink of bankruptcy by endowing it with $20,000 in stock, the dividends from which continue to fund part of the cost of each student’s education today.  Lee was president of the school from 1865 until his death in 1870, overseeing new construction and adding new departments to give young men the practical training they needed to rebuild Southern society.

George Washington’s “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” was required reading for me at W&L.  Washington copied these 110 rules into a notebook when he was a teenager, and they guided his conduct throughout his life.  Reading the rules reminds you that you should always be mindful of other people, and remember that they deserve your respect.    My favorite is #56: “Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad company.”

Last spring, I read Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage, and Vision, by H.W. Crocker III. Reading that book led me to discover that Lee’s rule of conduct was to be a gentleman who was courteous and kind to others.  Known as the “Marble Model” to his West Point classmates, Lee disciplined himself to do his duty cheerfully and to the best of his ability, to do what he thought was right without expecting rewards or recognition, to find ways to help others, and to work hard to achieve self-improvement.  Patience, goodwill and hard work turn every challenge and disappointment into a useful purpose.

With these two leaders in mind, this weekend I shared the spirit of civility with a couple from Michigan who moved next door a few weeks ago.  Remembering what it felt like to be lonely and far away from home, with no family or friends nearby as home maintenance calamities continued to surface, my parents and I helped them hang window shades and paint walls, fixed dinner for them, and shared their frustration over their garage door, disposal and hot water heater that all broke in one day.

Washington and Lee are right.  Helping and being kind to each other makes any situation that we’re given turn out well.

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