Imagine you have the “perfect” job — working for a Fortune 500 company, or maybe a respected government agency, with a prestigious executive title. Your family is happy and healthy, you live in an upscale suburban neighborhood, drive a handsome automobile and your salary is enough to allow your spouse to stay at home and be a full-time parent. Career-wise, you are “set for life.”
Then, one day, you discover a dark, horrible secret lurking in a forgotten filing cabinet …
Not too long ago, we thought of “heroes” as people who won battles or saved children from burning buildings. As we learn about the Code of Chivalry Today, however, we see that heroes don’t exist only in epic tales of glory and adventure. A hero can also sit at a desk, carry a briefcase, drive a minivan and tuck the kids in at night.
“Whistleblower” is a phrase used to describe a person who steps forward to reveal some form of impropriety. In the past year we have seen powerful examples of the courage and heroism required to be a whistleblower, a defender of the truth, a knight in shining armor of the 21st century.
Sherron Watkins, a vice-president at Enron, confronted the company’s chairman with documents she found that revealed massive accounting irregularities. Cynthia Cooper, an internal auditor at WorldCom, went before the board to expose nearly $4 billion in cover-ups. Coleen Rowley, a staff attorney at the FBI field office in Minneapolis, sent several memos to the director that proved the Bureau overlooked warnings about the 9/11 attacks.
Of course, being heroic is easy if your courage brings you acclaim and admiration; these women knew they were destined for anything but. They knew their supervisors wanted them to stay quiet, but they also knew they would have to look themselves in the mirror each morning, and they chose the path of self-respect instead of convenience.
Two days after her meeting, Watkins was threatened with termination, then her computer was confiscated, she was moved from her plush office into a tiny cubicle and given meaningless make-work jobs until she resigned. Cooper was personally blamed for the 17,000 layoffs that occurred after the cover-up she exposed became public, and she became a pariah within the company. Rowley received bags of mail from fellow FBI agents demanding her resignation and comparing her to convicted spy Robert Hanssen.
These whistleblowers (who were named by TIME Magazine as its “2002 Persons of the Year”) risked their families’ security and put themselves through anguish and heartache because they knew integrity was more valuable than the “perfect” job. They forced all of us to wonder, “If I found that dark, horrible secret in the filing cabinet, would I have the courage do what they did?”
A hero isn’t always the person who charges bravely into battle with banners flying and trumpets blaring. More often, a hero is the person who simply must choose between what’s comfortable and what’s right. These whistleblowing heroes remind us that being a knight in shining armor sometimes means making painful sacrifices in the name of chivalry, honor and leadership.
Read a reprint of the TIME Magazine article at the Time Magazine website. Photo of Cooper, Rowley and Watkins (left to right) copyright Gregory Heisler for TIME Magazine.