Do the Right Thing!

A task becomes a duty
from the moment you suspect it to be an essential part
of that integrity which alone entitles a man
to assume responsibility.

Dag Hammarskjöld

In Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” protagonist Pip and his buddy live profligately in the folly of their youth, running up merchant accounts far beyond their means. Periodically they are struck with remorse, and sit down with all their bills and total them up, so that they have a full accounting of how much they owe, and to whom. That done, they have such a feeling of satisfaction that they treat themselves to some more partying—on credit, of course—without ever actually taking steps to pay the bills.

I thought of Pip when I was discussing duty with my wife this evening. I told her of a realization I’d had about my daily routine: that unless I had a routine of traversing my “to do’s” every day, and selecting those that were to be done the next day, many of them would always be deferred. “That’s because you can still be swayed by your feelings. If you really understood your duty, that wouldn’t happen.” “Actually, I think I understand my duty,” I replied. “It’s that my understanding doesn’t always lead to execution—at least not in a timely fashion.”

“I don’t agree,” said she. “When you understand your duty, nothing can keep you from doing it. That’s what defines it. Duty is your ‘role imperative’—your duty as a husband, a father, a consultant, a speaker, a driver, a citizen, and so on. It is the moral and social commitment that comes with the role.”

Steven Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) suggests we use our roles as major headings in the outline of our time planning. What are my priorities as a husband today, this week, this year? As an employee? A father? A team member?

My wife—my loving and beloved coach—can always put her finger right on my next life challenge and articulate it for me. I realized that in some areas of my life, I don’t have the kind of understanding of duty that becomes an imperative to action. I have at best a remote intellectual grasp of these things, so that—like Pip—I can put my obligations in order, and feel so virtuous as a result, that I have no further need to occupy myself with them.

Two friends of mine have a wonderful idea for a business, and are in the process of setting it up. They called a meeting recently, and invited some potential investors. After their presentation, one of the investor candidates asked to see a business plan. They hadn’t prepared one. A concept brochure? No, they didn’t have that, either. Being kindly disposed toward the project, the potential investor explained that they shouldn’t present such ideas to investors without some kind of backup materials. They had a duty to people whose time and money they wanted, he explained.

As engineering professionals, we have a number of weighty duties—to our employers, to our customers, and to the people who will ultimately use the things we are designing and making. To fulfill our duties, we must hold fast to two principles: Consistency and quality. We can’t be haphazard in the execution of our tasks; we must make sure we cover all the bases. And we cannot be satisfied with less than “the right thing,” whatever that may be in the context of our work. We cannot brook compromise; lives may depend on what we do. The failure of a poor-quality component or the result of a poorly-executed procedure could be catastrophic.

Our responsibility is to do our duty in every circumstance. That requires us to live above our feelings; to do what needs to be done regardless of how we feel about it at that moment. And when we do it, not to pat ourselves on the back, or claim a special reward, but to know that doing our duty is the minimum that is required of us. That’s why special citations often include the language, “for going above and beyond the call of duty”; doing our duty is expected, not exceptional.

Feelings come and go, but duty is constant. We cannot allow our feelings to interfere with the performance of our duties. “I don’t feel like going to work today” is too common a complaint. But we usually go, anyway, even if we could lie about our health and stay home. We do it because we recognize our duty to our employer—we are accepting their payment, and we owe them our work.

In a wonderful old movie called No Highway in the Sky, James Stewart plays a scientist who has calculated that metal fatigue will cause the tail to fall off a particular commercial airplane made by his employer. When he is in a situation in which the authorities do not believe him, and he knows the danger is real, he drops a parked airplane off of its landing gear, causing extensive damage, in order to keep it from taking off. He does it because he realizes that his certain knowledge of what will happen gives him the duty to do so; he can’t ignore the harm that will come to people if he doesn’t do what he can to keep them from taking off.

We’ve trained ourselves—and now remind our six children—not to thank small children for obedience. We praise them for it, but we reserve thanks for those behaviors that involve an element of choice. If we thank them for merely doing what is required, we imply that they could justifiably do otherwise. Many airlines include in their on-board announcement, “Thank you for choosing our airline. We realize you have a variety of carriers from which to choose, and we’re glad you picked us.” But your employer doesn’t thank you for showing up for work; you’ve already made your choice to work there, and now showing up is merely your duty—if you want to keep your job.

The neglect of duty is not liberty, but license, and a sure prelude to diminished liberty. The path of duty in a particular role is described by the minimum undifferentiated requirements of that role—things that don’t depend on individual circumstances or talent, but on a rational sense of responsibility for the commitment entailed in the role. When we slip into the driver’s seat of a car we assume a responsibility—to ourselves, our loved ones, and the persons and property of everyone we’ll encounter on our drive. When we realize our similar duty in every role, we may feel confined, but it is precisely that confining structure that gives us the freedom to excel—to live “above and beyond” what is merely required; to be more than the “unprofitable servant” who has done no more than his duty.