In that decision making is so important to leadership and governing a nonprofit, and that I have an abiding interest in the leadership of our country’s Presidents, I was delighted to run across a portion of a post-presidential address Ronald Reagan offered at the Citadel Commencement in Charleston, South Carolina in 1993. His words are nonpolitical, wise, and informative for all of us.
Sometimes you see, life gives us what we think is fair warning of the choice that will shape our future. On such occasions we are able to look far along the path, up ahead to that distant point in the woods where the poet’s two roads diverge. And then, if we are wise, we will take time to think and reflect before choosing which road to take before the junction is reached.
But such occasions, in fact, are rather rare. Far more often than we can comfortably admit, the most crucial of life’s moments come like the scriptural “thief in the night.” Suddenly and without notice, the crisis is upon us and the moment of choice is at hand – a moment fraught with import for ourselves, and for all who are depending on the choice we make. We find ourselves, if you will, plunged without warning into the icy water, where the currents of moral consequence run swift and deep, and where our fellow man and yes, I believe, our Maker are waiting to see whether we will pass the rope.
These are the moments when instinct and character take command, for there is no time, at such moments, for anything but fortitude and integrity. Debate and reflection and a leisurely weighing of the alternatives are luxuries we do not have. The only question is what kind of responsibility will come to the fore.
And now we come to the heart of the matter, to the core lesson taught by heroism, for, you see, the character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined.
It has been determined by a thousand other choices, made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the little choices of years past – by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation – whispering the lie that it really doesn’t matter.
It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away – the decision that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness; habits of self-sacrifice or self-indulgence; habits of duty and honor and integrity – or dishonor and shame.
Because when life does get tough, and the crisis is undeniably at hand – when we must, in an instant, look inward for strength of character to see us through – we will find nothing inside ourselves that we have not already put there.
Quoted in Lead Like Reagan by Dan Quiggle, pp. 125-127 (2014, Wiley)
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