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Crisis as Crucible

April 20, 2011

This week, the nation has paused to reflect on the lessons learned from past and present crises, most notably the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and the explosion and spill from the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico last year. At the same time, current events, especially the lingering effects of the global financial crisis, the political stalemate over budget deficits, and the recent earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, have made it difficult to focus on much of anything.

Yesterday, Chris Bellavita encouraged us to reflect on why people do what they do: some acting virtuous, even valorous; others behaving diabolically, sometimes to devastating effect. I have been thinking recently about how people go about their tasks and what it says about their character and the way it affects others.

The crisis of confidence in our political leaders has piqued my interest in the influence of integrity or at least perceptions of it (or the lack of it) on the way others go about their business. Considered in this way, integrity is closely connected to credibility. If we cannot trust someone’s actions are consistent with their words, and that both reflect congruence with positive virtues and the values informing them, we are inclined to proceed with caution, if at all.

How then do we judge the credibility of another? At a minimum, we judge the competence of their performance. In many if not most instances, especially when we are the direct beneficiary of their services, we judge others’ competence by its correctness, which in most instances reflects the degree to which it performance addresses our needs and wants. Even when we know very little about the technical capabilities required to perform a given task or we are not beneficiaries of its performance, we apprise the competence by observing the confidence of those who perform it. We seem to recognize that competent, even confident performance does not come easily.

The more complex the tasks, the more we prize consistency in the performance of them, even when this is not particularly reasonable. Our assessments of consistent performance often depend not on what results from the actions of others, but on how they go about them. This is especially important in situations where desired outcomes arise long after the delivery of the required outputs. Consistency in this sense is as much a question of continuity as it is continuous improvement. We look for repeatable results, but want to know that these results arise from processes that engage and respond to contingencies. As such, we prize both means and ends, and tend not to accept that either justifies the other.

The longer we have to wait to see results, the more we value compassion. A consistent performance helps, but compassionate service adds value beyond the task at-hand. The more difficult, disruptive or damaging the circumstances, the more likely we are to be impressed by the compassion of those who deliver the services required to deal with them. The ability to engage a task with empathy is consistently impressive.

Ultimately, the virtue that most impresses us, the one that ultimately convinces us of another’s credibility is their willingness to engage difficult issues and tasks with courage. It is not the absence of fear that impresses us, but the ability of others to conquer or rise above their fears that gets our attention. We recognize immediately that such actions reflect genuine and deep-seated convictions that exhibit themselves even under stress as a commitment to positive values and a clear sense of moral purpose.

We understand implicitly that courage is refined and purified by the crucible crisis. It impresses us because we know it does not emerge spontaneously, but rather arises even in unexpected circumstances from deep reserves of experience informed by the practices that precede it.

I am convinced that this hierarchy helps explain, at least in part, the deep divergence of public opinion about the integrity of public officials and public servants alike: The Pew Center tells us people hold firefighters, teachers, doctors and others in high esteem but, in contrast, generally dislike if not loathe their employers: elected officials at every level of government. It also helps explain why people respond so differently to particular political parties and individual politicians even when they have such little respect for the class as a whole.

These reflections on the origins of integrity and influence have led me to look harder at how I act and how others understand my actions. How has the integrity of others informed your understanding of public service and public servants?

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