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Why Blow the Whistle? Remembering Enron

Whether a "whistleblower," as Edward Snowden is inevitably being called, is good or bad, helpful or damaging, is an unavoidable and fundamental question, thus also inevitably divisive.
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Whether a "whistleblower," as Edward Snowden is inevitably being called, is good or bad, helpful or damaging, is an unavoidable and fundamental question, thus also inevitably divisive. While The Guardian understandably makes the most out of his story, U.S. media have predictably moved into damage-control mode, with even so impeccably liberal a columnist as the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson already retailing insinuations, calling Snowden "an imperfect messenger" and "grandiose".

"There's a lot of radioactivity around that [whistleblower] label," Sherron Watkins said when I heard her speak at least year's National Character and Leadership Symposium at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. "I'm stuck with it, because the media put it on me."

I was also a speaker at the wonderful 2012 NCLS, and when I drove around the United States last fall for my next book, I made a point of seeking out Watkins on my way through Houston. On both occasions, she said many hard and wise things that seem both enduringly and newly relevant.

It's now many scandals and disasters in the past, but the Enron Corporation scandal of 2001, which Watkins exposed, was and remains a big deal. You can learn about it by watching the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Speaking of herself and other whistleblowers like Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, Watkins told the assembled Air Force cadets: "We were speaking truth to power, assuming bad news would be received and dealt with." Things didn't quite work out that way. About her 30-minute meeting with Enron CEO Ken Lay, she said, "In effect I'm telling him he has no clothes. The executives around him said, 'We're not clothing experts, but Arthur Andersen is. We're sure you have clothes.' They just dropped me in the grease."

Her reference, of course, is to the tale of the emperor's new clothes. "When the emperor was going down the street naked, the townspeople were still ooing and aahing, before the little boy started laughing," she said. "There's a wealth of wisdom in organizational behavior in that tale." Enron's stock price had doubled in three years, and its executives and employees held stock options. "You feel very good about your company," she remembered. "You can overlook things that have gone wrong, when the money is flowing like that. In 1996, when I first saw troubling accounting practices, I did not think about leaving Enron. I had not yet made vice president, and my own ego got in the way. Enron was the place to work in Houston, Texas. When you open up a pay stub, and you see that more than your annual salary has just been deposited in your checking account, it is heady."

She quoted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: "We do not err because truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. We err because this is more comfortable."

"Well, that quote would have gone right over my head before the Enron scandal," Watkins told the cadets. She also quoted Martin Luther King, who said: "Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about things that really matter."

"When you're faced with something that really matters," she paraphrased, "if you're silent, you're starting on the wrong path." And she recommended: "Be fearless in every single thing, even the small things. Go against the crowd if need be. And that will allow you to be fearless in the big things."

As its name implies, the purpose of the annual two-day National Character and Leadership Symposium is to instill leadership and other moral qualities in the young men and women who will be the next generation of U.S. Air Force officers. One point Watkins made speaks directly to every scandal and every whistleblower: that leadership is about individual responsibility, which we can't shirk by hiding behind or blaming institutions. As Snowden himself has told The Guardian: "You can't wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realized that leadership is about being the first to act."

"I will never have a job in corporate America again," Watkins told the cadets. "The minute you speak truth to power and you're not heard, your career is never the same again."

As with Enron, now that Snowden has done what he has done, what happens next is up to others: those in positions of leadership and the rest of us. "When you speak truth to power, there's nothing more you can do," said Watkins. "It's up to power to deal with it."

Enron's leaders dealt with it by leaving their employees to fend for themselves. "Within two weeks of me finding this fraud, [Enron president] Jeff Skilling quit. We did feel like we were on a battleship, and things were not going well, and the captain had just taken a helicopter home. The fall of 2001 was just the bleakest time in my life, because everything I thought was secure was no longer secure."

"Enron was very, very overconfident," she said. "[And] there's really no evidence that the media has the courage to tell the emperor that he's doing something wrong, until the emperor exposes himself. I think the media did a good job after the fact, but not before."

Which is why, unless we don't actually want to know what's really going on, we need people like Sherron Watkins and Edward Snowden.

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called "intelligent and compelling" by Mohsin Hamid. He is also the author of Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012), which Paul Farmer has praised as "a heartfelt account" that "gives readers an informed perspective on many of the political and social complexities that vex those who seek to make common cause with Haiti." His next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: Facebook: Join his email list here.

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