Any fool can try to defend his or her mistakes - and most fools do - but it raises one above the herd and gives one a feeling of nobility and exultation to admit one's mistakes.
For example, one of the most beautiful things that history records about Robert E. Lee is the way he blamed himself and only himself for the failure of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg.
Pickett's charge was undoubtedly the most brilliant and picturesque attack that ever occurred in the Western world. General George E. Pickett himself was picturesque. He wore his hair so long that his auburn locks almost touched his shoulders; and, like Napoleon in his Italian campaigns, he wrote ardent love-letters almost daily while on the battlefield.
His devoted troops cheered him that tragic July afternoon as he rode off jauntily toward the Union lines, his cap set at a rakish angle over his right ear. They cheered and they followed him, man touching man, rank pressing rank, with banners flying and bayonets gleaming in the sun.
It was a gallant sight. Daring. Magnificent. A murmur of admiration ran through the Union lines as they beheld it.
Pickett's troops swept forward at any easy trot, through orchard and cornfield, across a meadow and over a ravine. All the time, the enemy's cannon was tearing ghastly holes in their ranks, But on they pressed, grim, irresistible.
Suddenly the Union infantry rose from behind the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge where they had been hiding and fired volley after volley into Pickett's onrushing troops.
The crest of the hill was a sheet of flame, a slaughterhouse, a blazing volcano. In a few minutes, all of Pickett's brigade commanders except one were down, and four-fifths of his five thousand men had fallen.
General Lewis A. Armistead, leading the troops in the final plunge, ran forward, vaulted over the stone wall, and, waving his cap on the top of his sword, shouted: "Give 'em the steel, boys!" They did.
They leaped over the wall, bayoneted their enemies, smashed skulls with clubbed muskets, and planted the battle flags of the South on Cemetery Ridge. The banners waved there only for a moment. But that moment, brief as it was, recorded the high-water mark of the Confederacy.
Pickett's charge - brilliant, heroic - was nevertheless the beginning of the end. Lee had failed. He could not penetrate the North. And he knew it. The South was doomed.
Lee was so saddened, so shocked, that he sent in his resignation and asked Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, to appoint "a younger and abler man."
If Lee had wanted to blame the disastrous failure of Pickett's charge on someone else, he could have found a score of alibis.
Some of his division commanders had failed him. The cavalry hadn't arrived in time to support the infantry attack. This had gone wrong and that had gone awry.
But Lee was far too noble to blame others. As Pickett's beaten and bloody troops struggled back to the Confederate lines, Robert E. Lee rode out to meet them all alone and greeted them with a self condemnation that was little short of sublime.
"All this has been my fault," he confessed. "I and I alone have lost this battle." Few generals in all history have had the courage and character to admit that.
Many years ago when I was president of a company that specialized in factory automation, I was confronted with a situation that taught me the importance of keeping promises no matter the cost. Our company was going through a phase of rapid growth. We were engineering, fabricating, and installing automated production lines in factories around the world. We were hiring personnel and building increased factory capacity as fast as we could.
We had accepted an equipment order on a large project in northern England for a multi-national corporation and had agreed to a specific delivery date on the project. As the promised day approached, it became obvious that we would miss the scheduled date by approximately three weeks.
While studying the detailed schedule of the project, we realized that we had a shipment window of approximately three weeks. The production-line equipment would be shipped from our California factory over land to New Orleans, transported via cargo ship to Liverpool, and then moved across land to northern England.
We quickly realized that the only way we would be able to keep our word and make the delivery date would be a very expensive option. We decided to lease wide-bodied jets and ship all the equipment for the English factory via airfreight. This option cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and eliminated our anticipated profit. The financial cost of keeping our word was high; but you can’t put a dollar figure on a good night’s sleep.
Several months later I was in Malaysia negotiating a similar project with a different company. We had reviewed with the customer all of the engineering drawings, design concepts, and financial aspects of the project.
We were coming to the conclusion of our negotiation session when the highest-ranking executive representing the customer asked, “Will you be able to honor the delivery date?” Our team huddled for a moment to review the time constraints, and then we stated that yes, we could make the date.
Much to my surprise the executive responded by saying, “We know you will. We have heard all about what you did in England to keep your word. The project is yours.” A week later the purchase order arrived.
Our company could never have spent enough money on advertising in the trade magazines to develop the goodwill we had created throughout the world because of one simple act of being honest and keeping our word.
From an address delivered by Richard J. Maynes at BYU–Idaho on November 11, 2008.
Good Habits; Good Character
Spencer W. Kimball suggested that we take a careful inventory of our habits. “Change,” he said, “comes by substituting good habits for less desirable ones.” Then he added, “You mold your character and future by good thoughts and acts.” (New Era, Sept. 1974, p. 7.)
“We sow our thoughts, and we reap our actions; we sow our actions, and we reap our habits; we sow our habits, and we reap our characters; we sow our characters, and we reap our destiny.” (C. A. Hall, The Home Book of Quotations, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1935, p. 845.)
The future most seek is a life motivated by good thoughts, expressed in good works, and sustained by inner peace and respectable achievement.
We are not born into this world with fixed habits. Neither do we inherit a noble character. Instead, we are given the privilege and opportunity of choosing which way of life we will follow—which habits we will form.
Confucius said that the nature of men is always the same, however, it is their habits that separate them.
Good habits are not acquired simply by making good resolves, though the thought must precede the action. Good habits are developed in the workshop of our daily lives. It is not in the great moments of test and trial that character is built. That is only when it is displayed. The habits that direct our lives and form our character are fashioned in the often uneventful, commonplace routine of life. They are acquired by practice.
Solomon the wise taught, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Prov. 22:6.) e good habits of a child’s early training form the foundation for his future and sustain him in his later life.
In the conduct of our lives we learn that good character-building habits mean everything. It is by such behavior that we harvest the real substance and value of life. The way we live outweighs any words we may profess to follow.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Man’s destined purpose is to conquer all habits, to overcome the evil in him and to restore good to its rightful place.”
Bad habits are a reflection of our thoughts and personalities, our behavior and conduct. Someone has observed, “When a man boasts of his bad habits, you may rest assured they are the best he has.”
Our great challenge is to learn how to control ourselves. We must learn for ourselves and act for ourselves.
Habits are subject to change and improvement; An ancient proverb states that good habits result from resisting temptation. Such resistance often takes the form of a persevering struggle. When bad habits become a part of our lives and we desire to overcome them, we must seek help.
It is a wonderful feeling to conquer wrong practices and to be free and unencumbered from their detrimental effects, both physically and mentally. When we have conquered our bad habits and replaced them with good ones, living as we should, then we are on our way to real freedom.
We should become so involved in acquiring good quality traits and participating in character-building activities that there is no time to engage in anything worthless or harmful.
We begin, then, with our thoughts and end with our destiny. Our destiny is determined by our character, and our character is the sum and expression of our habits.
Character is won by hard work.
Ernest L. Wilkinson said: “Character … is not something to be obtained by ease and indolence or being socially agreeable. It cannot be acquired by absorption or by proxy or on the auction block. It is a reward derived from honest toil in overcoming difficulties. We grow by mastering tasks which others consider impossible.”
Yes, character must be formed in this life with good habits supplying the building material. When the qualities that are desirable in individuals become universal in the people of a nation, that nation also will have character. Goodness either in a person or in a nation is not simply the absence of wrongdoing. It is a love of and practice of all things that are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.
From a talk by Delbert L. Stanley: Good Habits Develop Good Character