Editor’s note: This commentary was first published Aug. 17, 2012.
“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
— C. S. Lewis
“To see what is right and do it not is cowardice.”
Who hasn’t heard the saying, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching?” Integrity is one of our Air Force core values; it is a foundational element on which the others are built. We hear of individuals, Airmen, who do the right thing, without thought of praise or reward and without thinking they could get away with something because no one was watching.
As I was thinking about it, I recalled many examples of the opposite, where everyone was watching but the person didn’t do the right thing.
There is more to it than just that. Integrity is also doing the right thing, even when everyone is watching.
When others are watching, we may be less likely to do the right thing if it’s not the popular thing to do or when there is social pressure to belong to a group. If it is an obvious right vs. wrong situation, it’s generally an easy decision (a group is standing around and someone unknowingly drops his wallet. The group, and individuals, will generally do the right thing.) But, if the situation is more nebulous, or if it deals more with a group’s social norms, individuals often have a moment of “What will someone else think of me if I do (or say or correct) this?” In these situations, sometimes we do not do what we know to be right.
Have you ever been in a group of people where inappropriate comments were made about a coworker? Or, where one of your friends (or someone you don’t particularly like) was being mocked behind his back? On the surface you may not see the right vs. wrong dilemma (although I would say it’s pretty obvious considering our culture of respect), but I’m sure you’ve had that twinge of unease. It’s your sense that something is not right. Did you say something to stop it? Or were you too worried about your standing within the group to say something. Were you afraid to say something? Have you been that person who then disparaged an individual who tried to put a stop to inappropriate comments?
What about uniform wear? Or customs and courtesies? Have you ever seen someone doing the wrong thing, but failed to correct them? You knew it was wrong, but you either felt uncomfortable correcting that individual or you were with a group of people and didn’t want to stand out or be ridiculed for correcting someone. Have you ever been that person who was corrected and then mocked the person who corrected you? If you were, what makes you think you will be able to correct someone else in the future when it has crossed your threshold of right vs. wrong?
The responsibility to do right is not vested only in your senior enlisted, supervisor or flight commander; it is each individual’s duty to know what is right and to do it.
It takes courage and integrity to stand up for what you know to be right, especially when many people around you accept wrong as right. Peer pressure is all around us and sometimes results in the wrong things being done when no one speaks up. As Confucius said — it is a form of cowardice to not do what you know to be right. To turn a blind eye to a situation is a form of failed integrity.
Most of you reading this article volunteered to serve, as did I. We agreed to abide by our core values. These values are just as useful to those not in uniform. Do what you know is right — even when people are watching. Your actions will make those around you better. You will be a better Airman and person for it.