They spoke with eloquence and a bit of humor. They spoke with wisdom and a lot of experience. They were members of a new Toastmasters club, and were giving a presentation at our recent Toastmasters conference. The man who transported them to the conference waited in the back of the room till they were done speaking, at which time he would take them back to prison.

The three presenters were from a nearby Federal Prison Camp, a minimum security facility that the men now call home.

“As you might imagine, we don’t get out much,” one of them said as they began their presentation. In their program, a General Session entitled “Navigating with Ethics and Integrity,” the three men – all of whom came from financial backgrounds and had had very successful careers – told their stories, sharing with us the details of how their lives took a wrong turn. Not all at once, but gradually. They took advantage of investment opportunities that were perfectly legal – at first. Then, as bigger and better opportunities came up, they started putting blinders on and ignoring red flags that should have stopped them, but didn’t. Eventually, their now-illegal transactions and activities landed them in federal prison, costing them their families, their friends, and their freedom.

I was mesmerized throughout the presentation. These men didn’t make excuses or blame others for what they did and what happened to them. And they didn’t look like the kind of people you read about in the paper, or see in crime shows on TV or in movies about prisons and convicted felons. They were well-spoken, intelligent, open, and honest. They were, as one of them described himself, “just a regular guy, a regular neighbor.”

Among the things that impressed me most about the presentation were the insights and observations these men shared, including a description and distinction one of them gave for ethics and integrity.

“Ethics,” he said,” is about following the law. Integrity is about doing the right thing in spite of the law.” I immediately thought about another description that’s been attributed to integrity: it’s what we do when no one is watching.

This is something that isn’t just about being honest and above-board in our business or financial decisions. It’s something that should guide every aspect of our lives. Always.

The program didn’t have anything to do with Thanksgiving, but as the holiday was approaching, I couldn’t help but think of the two in relation to each other. And this gave me a whole new set of things to be thankful for in addition to my family, friends, health, and so many things that I’m always grateful for.

I’m thankful for the values my parents instilled in me while I was growing up, and I’m thankful they’ve never been tested and shattered, as they were for the men at our conference.

I’m thankful for honesty and integrity, in myself as well as in others.

I’m thankful for people who own up to their mistakes and misdeeds, and who use them in ways that can teach and benefit others.

And I’m thankful I had the opportunity to hear and learn from them, and to share what I learned with you.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on November 24, 2016.
©Betty Liedtke, 2016

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