We all have heard the story about young George Washington being confronted by his father about a cherry tree that was cut down mysteriously. “I cannot tell a lie,” the lad said. “It was I.”
True or not, that story has taught a crucial lesson to generations of schoolchildren. Honesty, integrity and taking responsibility for one’s own actions lie at the heart of what makes a person worthy of respect – and what makes our country great.
This past Presidents’ Day, while thinking about old George, I pulled out a clipping I had saved from The Wall Street Journal a few weeks after the horrific 9/11 attacks. The article concerned Leslie Robertson, the principal engineer and architect of the World Trade Center, who was giving a speech titled “The Design, Construction and Collapse of the World Trade Center” before the National Council of Structural Engineers.
Robertson began his presentation by showing slides depicting the early construction of the World Trade Center in the 1970s – he showed prefabricated exterior panels being hoisted into place, with thousands of people actively at work on a remarkable idea that had no equal. As he spoke about those glorious days, the 73-year old architect was overcome by emotion. Then, fast-forwarding 30 years, he shared images of the unforgettable aftermath of devastation. Using a laser pointer, he highlighted the grim photos of Ground Zero – the exterior panels torn into jagged sections, twisted steel columns and towering piles of rubble.
During the question-and-answer period that followed, he was asked, “Mr. Robertson, is there anything you wish you had done differently in the design of the twin towers?”
“I wish I had made the towers stand up a little longer,” Mr. Robertson said. “I mean, every person was important. Everyone deserved a chance to get out.”
The collapse of the World Trade Center was caused by a group of terrorists using religion as a shield to justify murder.
Robertson was the architect of one of the greatest symbols of commerce that the world had ever seen. He could have insisted that its construction was flawless and had a perfect design, but he didn’t. He could have claimed that its collapse was not his fault and pointed the finger at those who truly deserved to be blamed for this cowardly act, but he didn’t. He could have maintained that the people in the towers indeed had enough time to get out (after all, the south tower stood for 47 minutes after impact, while the north tower stood for one hour and 40 minutes after impact), but he chose not to go the blame route.
He stood tall and declined to find fault with the state of the world. He refused to blame anybody else. He did something that very few seem willing to do – he took responsibility.
I don’t know if Robertson ever heard the tale about Washington as a child. I don’t know if there really was anything else Robertson could have done to make the towers stand longer. I do know that Robinson clearly showed what character and responsibility are all about that day during his speech. Responsibility is a verification of our belief in what we do. And it is in times of crisis that we show what we are made of.
The next time you find yourself in a difficult situation or have to explain a course of action gone wrong, remember Robertson. Own your work, accept your mistakes and avoid the blame game. The tower of your character will stand much longer.
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is assistant chancellor of International Programs-Africa, director of Africa Initiative and associate director of the Global Health Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a former president of Westminster College and served as dean at the Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University. He has a Ph.D. in economics.