What Happened to Honor?

Steve Coats

I recently had the privilege of attending the graduation ceremony for the class of 2009 at Jefferson Medical College. About 250 students were awarded diplomas and granted the right to practice medicine. Each of them, no doubt, felt a great sense of pride and joy (and relief) when they heard the title "doctor" affixed to their names, as they were called on stage to receive their diplomas and sashes.

While most medical school graduation ceremonies follow a fairly standard format I suppose, to my surprise there was one part of this program that moved me in a most unexpected way: the final assignment these graduates had to complete before officially becoming doctors was to publicly recite the Oath of Hippocrates. Led by the calming and mellow voice of one of the faculty, they concluded their vow and, at long last, became welcomed members of a wonderful and truly respected profession. And even though they do not remember all the words, new doctors know the oath exists and what it stands for.

The Hippocratic Oath is often casually summarized by non-medical types as "do no harm." Yet, nowhere in the actual text do those three words appear. There are some other remarkable words, however, that spell out the standards of behavior and personal commitment expected of doctors. In fact, it was the Oath's closing line that truly grabbed me: "These things I do promise upon my honor." What a powerful statement that was for me. It was the notion of honor that was so inspiring. Yet almost immediately after hearing it, I must sadly admit that the first thought that popped into my head was, "what has happened to it?"

Current State of Honor
I recently worked with a group of Army personnel plus others from a state law enforcement agency. Based on their words and behaviors, it is clear that honor is still of supreme importance in both organizations. But outside of these examples, one could easily make a case that honor has been replaced by greed, self interest, or perhaps even the convenience of taking the easy road, especially if the honorable road is too hard. I began to wonder, how much better off might we be if we knew that everyone truly valued honor, and that it would never be compromised? Might our current circumstances be different if other professions were bound by an oath of excellence, based on honor?

Early in the Hippocratic Oath, a doctor solemnly swears that "into whatsoever house I shall enter, it shall be for the good of the sick to the utmost of my power." In the very next statement doctors pledge to keep themselves "from wrong, from corruption, from the tempting of others to vice." Can this be said of other professions today? Pick any one you like. Is the perception that the AIGs of the world, or lawyers, politicians, or journalists have pledged to keep themselves from the temptations of wrong, corruption, or vice? It seems to me that the relentless forces of the Dark Side are especially strong these days.

Whom Do We Trust
The cynics will certainly shout out that doctors fall off the wagon as well. And that is true. However in a number of various survey findings related to trust, doctors as a profession are usually rated toward the top. Business leaders, government, attorneys, and media types are usually toward the bottom. There are, of course, many individuals in each of these professions who do value honor and attempt to live by it. But there are certainly plenty of examples of those that don't and the havoc they create.

So what do you think? When you reflect on honor in a profession, where do doctors rank for you? How about when you look beyond medicine? Do you see much evidence that in our current world—anywhere— honor is considered important anymore? How about when you look within yourself? Just how important is it to you? In your work today, is there anything you are willing to promise, upon your honor?

The Impact of an Oath
I have no idea how much difference the Hippocratic Oath actually makes, if any. My guess is that not many graduating medical school students remember more than a handful of the words, let alone could they talk in detail about it. But they do know it is there. They know they have something that defines the ideals and values of their profession. They know that it is not just a collection of words on a plaque but is, in fact, a definition of the kind of person they are expected to be in order to be called "Doctor." And they have pledged their commitment to it.

Who knows? Maybe if every so often brokers or executives, lobbyists or politicians, or the rest of us for that matter had to publicly promise, upon our honor, that "my work shall be for the good to the utmost of my power," the world might be a less troubled, more trusting place. It certainly would do no harm.

Personally, I hope that honor is not a tired ideal of the past. But even if you are not part of a profession or organization that is guided by a publicly declared promise of honor, you can still choose to live your life by that same noble standard. You can choose to turn away from the seductive temptations of wrong, corruption, and vice, and instead be a role model of acting with honor, in everything you do, on and off the job. That would most assuredly make the world a better place.

Steve Coats, a Leadership Challenge® Workshop Master Facilitator, is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. For nearly twenty years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers around the world in leadership development, team development, personal growth, change, and business strategy. Steve can be reached at stevec@i-lead.com

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