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Civility is admired in life and death

June 1, 2009


Commentary Civility is admired in life and death

You want a good read? Sample the obituaries in The New York Times. Among these tributes are fascinating mini-biographies of extraordinary people—obviously mortal but not in every sense.

Last week, you could have enjoyed the lives of Herbert York (87), a nuclear physicist who worked on the atomic bomb; Oleg Yankovsky (65), a Russian actor; Joan Stanton (94), the voice of Lois Lane on the radio version of "The Adventures of Superman"; Robert Furchgott (92), a pharmacologist whose work with the gas nitric oxide won him a Nobel Prize; Lee Solters (89), a razzle-dazzle press agent for Frank Sinatra; and Madonna's yoga expert, Krishna Pattabhi Jois (93).

One of my favorite Times obituaries chronicled the life of a lawyer. He did not win the Nobel Prize nor did he invent or discover anything of lasting value. He was not famous, nor did he cavort with the likes of Sinatra and Madonna. Probably few outside of New York ever knew him. In fact, I suspect the only rationale for devoting precious column space in the Times was that he practiced his trade in Manhattan for more than 50 years. He did this with empathy and grace. According to his peers, he was respected; more than that, he was beloved.

While reading about this relatively obscure but remarkable man, I was moved to ask myself as a lawyer how I would want the Times to sum up my career—my life. I ask you as a lawyer, accountant, doctor or other professional or businessperson to pose the same question. What would you want said in your obituary that would set you apart from your peers? That you were skillful, creative, innovative and resourceful—in other words, successful? Of course. That you were ethical? That goes without saying.

How about that you kept your commitments—that your word could be trusted? You can say that about most Hoosiers in business. In 1991, when we initially sold the stock of The National Bank of Indianapolis, we did so pursuant to a private placement. Of the almost 400 commitments to purchase stock, I can recall only three people who reneged on this unenforceable oral agreement. That is a credit to who we are in Indiana. Conversely, I tell my employees that there are a number of countries in which we will not do business. One of them is California.

Success, ethical behavior and trustworthiness are all impressive qualities, but they are not really what separate the very best of us. It's manners, courtesy—civility. In addition to what you do and how well you do it, it is how you do it that sets you apart and above. The lawyer in the obituary was distinguished for treating his partners, clients and adversaries with dignity and respect.

I'm reminded of a story about a member of my profession who needed improvement in this area. He was a trial attorney who lost for the defense in a burglary conviction. His panicky client turned to him and asked, "So, counselor, where do we go from here?" The lawyer replied, "Son, you're going to jail. I'm going to lunch."

We can all strive to be better. Over 70 years ago, a book was written by James Hilton titled "Lost Horizon." In it, airplane passengers were kidnapped and flown to a hidden community in the Himalayas where people seemed to live forever. The enclave was called Shangri-La and the credo by which they all lived was simple: Be kind. It would be great if we could all spend a few months in Shangri-La.

I hope I don't read your obituary anytime soon. I hope you don't read mine. May we live long and interesting lives, and when it's over may our business and professional careers be noted for achievement, our good word and civility.
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Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.

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