“What you do when you don’t have to, determines what you will be when you can no longer help it.” –Rudyard Kipling
It was one of those long travel days and I was beginning to droop. I’d spent hours flying from Zurich to Newark only to find that my flight to Minneapolis was delayed an hour. We finally boarded the plane and almost everyone was seated when a tall man appeared in the aisle next to me and indicated that he was the lucky recipient of the center seat. “I’m cranky,” he said and flashed a smile. “I’m flying on a full fare first class ticket.”
I smiled back. “Do you want to talk about it?” He shook his head and squeezed into the seat next to me. I asked if he was just beginning his trip. “No, I flew in from London,” he replied.
I may have gasped. I had found my ideal seatmate!
“What were you doing in London?” I asked.
“I was there to do some entrepreneurial training,” he replied. I may have gasped. I had found my ideal seatmate!
Then he held out his hand, “By the way, I’m Dave Larue.” We never stopped talking for the next two and a half hours. I learned that he’d had his own business since he was 24 (he’s now 46), that he’d been doing coaching and training as a sideline for the past 10 years, that his son had started his own business.
I learned a lot about the facts of Dave’s life, but then he told me a story that spoke loudly about who this man is.
Several years ago when Dave was just starting out as a public speaker, he was on his way to Los Angeles to speak to a group of upper level managers in a company there. He planned to use his flight time to polish his talk.
As the plane was boarding, he saw the flight attendant escorting an elderly man with a cane onto the plane. Dave said he was thinking, “Please don’t let him sit next to me, but, of course, that’s where they put him.” The 87-year-old retired farmer from North Dakota was setting off on an around the world journey, but he was not an experienced traveler.
When the meal arrived, Dave saw the old man struggle and offered to cut up his lettuce wedge and chicken breast. Having gotten through that without incident, the man said he needed to go to the restroom. Dave walked him there and told him to just go in and not lock the door.
After long minutes inside, the old man poked his head out the door and motioned to Dave. “I can’t get my pants up,” he said. So Dave joined him in the compartment and got him dressed.
As the plane was about to land, the flight attendant came over and offered to call for a wheelchair. The man said he had his own special wheelchair with him. The flight attendant said she was sorry, but their personnel was only authorized to use their own equipment. Once again, Dave came to the rescue offering to push the man in his own chair to meet the cruise representative who was meeting him.
Having accomplished that, Dave left. “You know, he didn’t even thank me or anything,” he said.
The next day Dave conducted his seminar and talked about attitude and the importance of treating people well. When he finished, an executive in the audience got up and said, “We hear a lot of speakers and sometimes I wonder if they really walk the talk. I’d just wanted to tell everyone here that yesterday I was sitting two rows behind you on the flight and I saw what you did for that old man.”
When I heard Dave’s story, I recalled that someone said that character is how you behave when nobody’s watching. In Dave’s case, it was how he behaved when he didn’t know anyone was watching. Not everyone would have passed the test so well.
There are many people in this world who have two very different personalities: their public and private selves. But character does not depend on outside approval; it comes from behaving with integrity in all circumstances, public or private.
“Character is the total of thousands of small daily strivings to live up to the best that is in us,” said Arthur G. Trudeau. “Character is the final decision to reject whatever is demeaning to oneself or to others and with confidence and honesty to choose the right.”
Whether anyone is watching or not.