Integrity Lessons From a Whistleblower to His Daughter
We’ve got to slow down and be like white lines on mountainous roads to each other, my Dad, the late Bill McHenry, once told me. Otherwise, how can we see and safely navigate the inevitable ethical fogs of work and life?
Even when I was very young, I knew that my dad had gone successfully through several huge ethical fogs. Several years before Dad met my mom, he turned down an unethical but lucrative job at the height of the great depression. When I was just six months old, he blew a whistle on his powerful embezzling boss, a college president. Four years later, soon after Dad’s testimony helped send the boss to jail, Dad turned down another lucrative but unethical job at a social service agency.
As a child, of course, I didn’t understand the full impact of these stories. As an adult, I got enough details about whistleblowing and its impact to fill a book.
In the end, Dad’s only regret was that no one had stopped the president when the wrongdoing was small, by saying simply, “No, Dr. Meadows, you can’t do that.” Over the years, I also learned a lot about the stress of Dad’s whistleblowing on our family, and I healed.
What was left after the forgiveness and healing were some very powerful life lessons in basic integrity. May they also serve you.
Integrity Tip 1: Discover And Strengthen Your Integrity Signals
Each of us has a set of unique signals that let us know when we’re in or out of integrity, whether we call those signals our North Star, our touch stone, our inner compass. Or my favorite, which I learned in Dad’s shop, the level and plumb which have helped carpenters build on true and on the level for over 5,000 years.
For Dad, moral disgust was visceral, like the feeling of being kicked in the gut when he realized what that his boss was embezzling. We once talked about the feeing of moral uplift — that warm feeling you may get in the upper chest in the presence of goodness–or the quiet buzz I sometimes get in the upper back, when you know things are on true or on the level.
Integrity Tip 2: Feed and Exercise Your “Integrity Muscle”
Dad often got integrity guidance from intuition or memories. The first time Dad was offered an unethical job, he was helping to tear down an old, unsafe bridge when the boss offered to cut him in on a deal to paint the old parts to look like new, then underbid other contractors on a job in another county.
Standing along on what was left of the old bridge, Dad felt a moment of temptation. “With so many people going bankrupt,” he thought, “you could even help your mama buy the farm she’s always wanted.” Just then a Canada goose flew close by. It eyeballed Dad and seemed to say, “You know you’re got to do the right thing.”
For the first time in his career, Dad lost his footing. As he scrambled for balance, he imagined crashing onto the rocks below, then being swept down the rapids to death or severe injury. That’s when he remembered Psalm 121, which he had memorized as a child: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
The psalm then promised that God would not allow him to stumble or fall, that he would be guarded from evil, “both now and forever.” That helped him regain his footing and affirm his refusal to be part of corruption.
Integrity Tip No. 3: Don’t Stand Naively Alone When You It’s Your Turn to Speak Out
Dad was lucky to have the support of several other faculty members who also blew the whistle. A local politician connected him to the State Bureau of Investigation, and after the third try, he got the support of a great lawyer to protect himself. Dad also prayed a lot.
Whistleblowers have a lot more support today, starting with the Government Accountability Project (www.whistleblower.org). If Dad were speaking out today, he could benefit from a great therapist who understands how to alleviate stress.
And if you don’t already know how to document key information, get an attorney to teach you what you need to record and how to do it. Assume that once you’ve spoken out, people who now seem like friends may be offered huge incentives to deny what they now admit is the truth. So get that truth in writing, before you go public.
Integrity Tip No. 4: Don’t Take on Too Much.
Too many whistleblowers become obsessed with fixing the whole problem, winning a personal vendetta or being a martyr. I grew up with inflated notions of all I thought I had to do to live in integrity, given my idealized image of my father.
My best ally here has been Rhena Schweitzer Miller, daughter of my lifetime hero, Albert Schweitzer. While interviewing her once, I got the image that it’s possible to wear a powerful parental legacy or a calling as lightly as one wears a chiffon scarf. Another ally is my minister, Rev. Dr. Patricia Keel, to seek guidance on what is mine to do, what is not. To the extent I have courage to do that which really calls me and ignore my ego’s demand that I do something grand, I’m more likely to be in integrity. I also get to have a great life while doing what’s I know to be right, because part of being in integrity is being whole and true to myself.
So what about you? What stories and resources help you know, stay in or return to integrity? What tips can you offer from your life or role models?
As always, many blessings
Pat McHenry Sullivan