What have I learned after 1,418 commentaries?
I’ve learned that ethics scandals are not isolated to any age, party, gender, or ethnicity; that Democrats have been just as shameless as Republicans; that women are not as innocent as they may appear and old age, in many cases, does not confirm ethical wisdom.
Nonetheless, I remain inspired by those individuals who have lived out the definition given to me by my own ethics teacher, Michael Josephson:
“Ethics is having the character and the courage to do the right thing, even when it costs more than you really want to pay.”
In 1995, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand decided to step forward as the highest-ranking tobacco insider and testify that Brown & Williamson and the tobacco industry not only knew that nicotine was an addictive substance, but were actively involved in manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes. This was contrary to what the CEOs of the seven major tobacco companies had told Congress in sworn testimony in April 1994.
The cost for Wigand’s integrity was high. He lost his job, his home, his wife, and for a time, his reputation.
In the many interviews for my book, What Do You Stand For? his response to this question stands out:
“Jeff, given the personal and professional consequences of your decision, would you do it again?”
“In a heartbeat,” Wigand said. “I have no rancor or regrets. I did what I thought was right and would do it again. Each of us should realize that we can make a difference.”
I received a similar response after interviewing Lewis Merletti over the course of several years. In 1998, the former director of the U.S. Secret Service spent 6 months battling independent counsel Kenneth Starr over compelling agents on the President’s Protective Division to testify about what agents may have seen or heard regarding the Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Despite all the personal and professional abuse he received, Merletti stood firm.
In our last phone conversation, I shared my exchange with Wigand. I barely finished the story when Merletti echoed Wigand’s sentiment regarding his stand against independent counsel Ken Starr.
Over the course of the three-part Merletti story that appeared on the website, I received 25 comments. One reader wrote, “As a former federal agent, Mr. Merletti’s high ethical standards honored the thousands of federal agents who would never compromise their integrity for the sake of convenience or opportunity even though history can reveal some who might have.”
Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz is another individual who repeatedly demonstrates integrity through his actions. September, 2013 was only one example where Schultz entered the gun debate with common sense and respect for customers.
“Dear Fellow Americans,” a full page ad began in newspapers around the country.
“Few topics in America generate a more polarized and emotional debate than guns. In recent months, Starbucks stores and our partners (employees) who work in our stores have been thrust unwillingly into the middle of this debate. That’s why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas. …
“First,” Schultz explains, “this is a request and not an outright ban. Why? Because we want to give responsible gun owners a chance to respect our request – and also because enforcing a ban would potentially require our partners to confront armed customers, and that is not a role I am comfortable asking Starbucks partners to take on.
“Second, we know we cannot satisfy everyone. For those who oppose ‘open carry,’ we believe the legislative and policy-making process is the proper arena for this debate, not our stores. For those who champion ‘open carry,’ please respect that Starbucks stores are places where everyone should feel relaxed and comfortable. The presence of a weapon in our stores is unsettling and upsetting for many of our customers. …
“Whatever your view, I encourage you to be responsible and respectful of each other as citizens and neighbors.”
One of the most inspiring individuals I have ever had the experience to hear in a public speech is the remarkable 14-year-old Pakistani woman, Malala Yousafzai who stood up to the Taliban by encouraging girls to get an education.
Surviving a shot to her head, Yousafzai continues to travel and speak on behalf of girls’ education.
“Pakistan is a country that has historically suffered from timid and ineffectual leadership,” New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof writes, “unwilling to stand up to militants. Instead, true leadership emerged from a courageous 14-year-old girl.”
In July, 2013, Yousafzai addressed the U.N. with power and purpose:
“The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born … I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists.”
For her work, Yousafzai received the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
What have I learned from ten years of commentaries and ethical heroes: that ethics is more important than ever; that the ethical values of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, fairness and citizenship are universal, and that no matter how difficult, each of us – with the help of our better angels – should strive to be better people.
Monday, back to work.