I was in third grade when I stood in the principal’s office one morning along with a number of other kids. We rode the school bus together every day, and now, because of an incident a couple of days earlier, we were being questioned.
The short version…
We had a substitute bus driver. We younger kids moved to the back of the bus (a big no-no), crawled around under the seats, jumped from seat to seat and generally went all Lord of the Flies on the ride home. Some well-mannered, very young child later told our regular bus driver the chaos that had ensued during her absence but did not name any names, save two.
Fast-forward to the interrogation…
The two kids who had been identified were already in custody. They sat sniffling in the corner of the office as the principal asked who else was guilty. No one said anything…including the two downtrodden boys. They would indeed suffer, but they were not about to give anyone up.
My conscience refused.
Even if I missed punishment, I could not dodge the fact that I was in the wrong. The lack of penalty did not make my actions acceptable. If we remained silent, we would receive no punishment. It wasn’t that the principal was trying to being nice, he just didn’t know who was guilty. Never mistake ignorance for grace.
I stepped forward. “I am guilty,” I said.
The principal stared at me.
There was movement at my left side. My brother stepped up next to me. “Me too,” he said through tears. The other kids looked on. From the chairs, the two boys questioned earlier stopped crying and shook their heads at our admission.
“I am sorry,” I continued, looking the principal in the eye. “I’ll accept whatever punishment comes.” He sat back a bit in his chair and stared at me as though I had just refused the blindfold before the firing squad.
“No recess for two weeks,” he said without any trace of emotion. I spent the next ten class days sitting in the hallway on the cold tile floor doing busywork while my classmates played and laughed in the sunshine. One kid, who also guilty, but remained tight-lipped about it, told me, “You’re an idiot for confessing.” I shrugged, knowing that I was the only one who had to live with my own conscience.
There is always a cost to obedience…always. You must decide ahead of time what your integrity is worth to you. If you esteem your integrity lightly, little by little you will steadily sell it off a parcel at a time until you find only a tattered remnant left. As Juvenal wrote, “No one becomes depraved all at once.”
It reminds me of the exchange attributed to numerous famous men from the last century. Although probably apocryphal in nature, the lesson is valuable. The story goes that a wealthy and celebrated man at a dinner party spied an attractive socialite and asked if she would sleep with him for a very large amount of money. She agreed. He then asked if she would be willing to do the same for a very small amount.
“What kind of women do you think I am?” she exclaimed.
“Madam,” he responded. “We have already established what kind of woman you are; we are now negotiating a price.”
Every decision adds to the direction of our course of life, so we must view our integrity with the end in mind. As Henry Blackaby wrote, “Integrity doesn’t happen by accident. It happens on purpose.” Sometimes I have failed in doing the right thing, and at other times, I have done the right thing only to suffer greatly for it.
I have been thinking about that childhood moment in the principal’s office here recently as I reflect on other “hard, right things” in leadership. There have been right decisions I have made that have cost me dearly. Friends have been lost, promotions have been stunted, and opportunities denied, but all said and done, it has been worth it.
I think back to a time when I knew it was likely that I would be asked to complete an exit questionnaire for an organization. I truly desired to remain silent and strategically avoid answering any questions because I knew that to be honest would cause a great deal of turmoil for those involved no matter how lovingly and tactfully I responded. Then I was asked directly for honest feedback on the organization and its leaders.
I sat alone and prayed for a long while. “I could lie,” I thought. “Say everything is sterling. Sweep any problems under the rug…and then dance on the rug.”
But that was not the honest route.
So, with that in mind, I gave feedback. I prayed throughout the whole process. I agonized over how to say things in an honest, yet redemptive way. Then, I hovered over the send button…
David wrote in Psalm 15:4 that the righteous person “swears to his own hurt and does not change.” This person makes an oath, sticks to his word and maintains his integrity even to the point of injury, suffering and loss, yet he remains steadfast and does not alter his course.
The unsent email stared back at me. As I tried to make out the impact of sending it, the possibilities were shadowed in uncertainty. I felt like I was standing there peering into the dark, trying in vain to find my way with a single, quickly-dying match.
I then remembered something I read once:
“Once a spiritual leader is sure of the will of God, he will go into immediate action regardless of the consequences. He must have the courage to burn his bridges behind him, and he must be willing to accept full responsibility for whatever success or failure comes.”
The funny thing was that those words were written by one of the very leaders that had gotten the organization into the dysfunctional, slow-motion train wreck, but instead of accepting “full responsibility,” he would find a suitable scapegoat to blame while protecting his son (whom he wanted to promote regardless of the damage to the organization). Though the leader was unwilling to bear the burden of his own decisions, I knew that to keep quiet would be to exhibit the same craven cowardice he showed.
I pressed “send.” It was at a price.
Obedience costs, but a burning bridge gives great light.
Late last night, I found myself thinking about that incident in the principal’s office. Many years later, after I became an adult, my father told me that shortly after my confession, he happened to run into my principal one day. He told my dad, “Your son stepped up. Didn’t seem afraid. Said he would take whatever punishment he needed to take…That was something.”
My father was proud, my principal was impressed, but those things did not matter that much at all to me. What mattered most was that I discovered that the right thing is often easy to know, yet hard to do. Even through the pain, I have never once regretted the “hard, right things,” but I truly regret not having done more of them.