Video: Excerpt from Gus Lee Address
SPRINGFIELD, Ohio —Author and Ethicist Gus Lee passionately shared what single factor will decide happiness in life while he prompted those in attendance to ponder the virtue on which all other virtues hang, during the Opening Convocation of Wittenberg University’s 160th academic year, Sept. 1, in Weaver Chapel. The event also marked the opening of the 23rd season of the Wittenberg Series.
“Moral courage is the single factor that will decide your happiness,” Lee told the audience of nearly 1,000 students, faculty, staff and members of the community. “Wise people from Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill to Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein have said that courage is the one virtue upon which all other virtues hang.”
Lee spoke with honesty, often injecting humor, about his less than glamorous childhood growing up in San Francisco’s panhandle or the “hood” as he called it. He said he was afraid of everything and had courage for nothing.
“I was like the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz,” he said. “I didn’t want feelings or brains. When I was a sprout who knew nothing, I learned what counted most in life – the ability, and the willingness, to act for the right and to address behaviors that are wrong.”
He shared that his grandfather and father did not serve as suitable role models for anyone seeking to be ethical or trustworthy. “My dad was to fatherhood, what Enron was to Fortune 500,” he said. Instead, Lee sought other people with moral courage to help him in his journey to find his “unique identity and the essence of self.”
One was a childhood pal, a street fighter named Toussaint, who continues to inspire him through courage, selflessness and generosity. The second hero of his life was a former professional fighter, Coach Tony of the San Francisco Central YMCA. Lee said that lessons learned from their examples helped him believe that people live in a world that is governed by principles greater than themselves.
“This does not mean that those who cheat will not gain temporary advantages or that justice is always done quickly and easily,” he said. “It does mean that if you live according to principle – if you put your arms around honor – you will have a good and successful life. It’s that simple.”
Lee challenged the students to find their inner dream, taking advantage Wittenberg’s invitation to build not only their fine minds, but also their admirable moral courage. He explained that character has no higher purpose, and life has no greater honor.
“Classes will test your mind, but life will test your very self,” he said. “Let no one violate integrity on your watch.”
He charged that the nation is currently engaged in a civil war of ethics. It is not a war of volunteers but of draftees. No one is exempt, he said, for there is no place in which people are not accountable for their actions.
After the convocation, Lee met with the members of Wittenberg’s Honor Council, which is comprised of faculty, students and staff. He said he was impressed with the work that is being done on this campus to raise the consciousness of creating and maintaining an ethical and just environment in which to teach and learn. He shared that all humans, regardless of their political or cultural backgrounds, yearn for moral leaders.
Lee told the group, “I applaud and respect you for having the courage to design a thoughtful code of academic integrity and to abide by standards of accountability for all who make up this great institution. You all are pioneers. Institutions and corporations alike who get this now will survive and prosper.”
But with that, he said, leaders take the pain. Lee warned the group that it won’t always be easy or pleasant. “But if you’re going to do it, turn on all your lights — turn on all your best lights.”
On Thursday, Lee shared an hour with 24 juniors and seniors in professor Lowell E. Stockstill’s “Legal Environment of Business” management class, where they discussed ethical concepts, humility, business communications and effective listening.
Senior management major John Henson of Columbus asked Lee what principle was most violated by companies and business professionals. “He told us without hesitation – humility,” Henson recalled. “He said the more power and prestige you have over people makes you lose sight of humility.”
Henson was impressed by a metaphor Lee used when speaking with the class. “He said that we should think of our life as a train track, and that we should be prepared to be tempted or asked to jump the tracks or head in directions off-course. He suggested that we always look optimistically into ourselves, and then we can make the right choices to stay on track.”
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