Defining moments, lasting legacies

August 11, 2010

Legend has it that in 1836 at the besieged Alamo, Col. William Barrett Travis assembled his surviving force of 100 or so Texas and Tennessee volunteers and drew a line in the sand before them.

Surrounded by a Mexican army of several thousand, the outnumbered and out-gunned men had held on to the Alamo for nearly two weeks. But now a massive and decisive Mexican assault was imminent, likely at dawn. So Travis offered his men a choice. If any one of them, for any reason, wanted to leave the Alamo that night under cover of darkness, all they had to do was cross the line he had drawn. No questions would be asked, he said.

No one crossed the line, or so the story goes.

Ten months ago, in Virginia, a similarly dramatic situation evolved on the helipad outside the Pentagon. It was almost midnight on Sept. 11, some 15 hours after the building had been hit by a hijacked jetliner. Pentagon Renovation Manager Walker Lee Evey assembled his troops and told them plainly that their world and their mission had changed. From that day on, Evey said, each would have to pledge total commitment for an indefinite period.

So, right then and there, it was their decision to stay or to go. And if anyone wanted to leave, Evey stressed, no one would question their decision or speak ill of their absence. Just like at the Alamo, no one left (see p. 19).

Tests of character, opportunities to lead

Such are the defining moments that shape our history. Often subtle, frequently sudden, they grow only larger in retrospect as the events they set in motion gather momentum. They are the true tests of our character, for which many of us may study all our lives, yet still be unprepared.

Indeed, testimony in the recent obstruction of justice trial for reeling accounting giant Arthur Andersen revealed that there was a moment when all might have been saved in its infamous dealings with spectacularly corrupt client Enron Corp. (whose soon-to-be-sold Limbach Facilities Services is still one of our top subs, see p. 62.) Witnesses recalled that concerns were raised at an Andersen board meeting a year or so ago, where Enron's corporate practices and actual financial health were called into question.

Some even wondered aloud whether it was worth it to keep Enron as a client. But that internal debate died on the vine and Andersen opted instead to keep cashing Enron's checks. The rest, as they say, is history. And the once-proud bastion of U.S. accounting is now in a death spiral.

Similarly, Corporate America seems to be at the shores of its own Rubicon. After a fall, winter and spring of disturbing revelations from Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Tyco, Vivendi, Xerox and an increasingly crowded rogue's gallery, one must ask: Who will be Wall Street's summer surprise?

President Bush entered the fray July 9, when he went to Wall Street specifically to scold selfish CEOs and to propose a raft of stop-gap reforms. "America's greatest economic need is higher ethical standards," he said.

Of course, the words of our "CEO President" may ring hollow to some, as more questions arise from his lucrative 1990 sale of failing Harken Energy stock. Ironically, his own defining moment from 2001 — standing bullhorn-in-hand atop the WTC rubble — now seems slightly blurred.

That should help remind our GIANTS of the fleeting nature of some moments and the defining truths in others.


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