Truth-tellers are able to shine a light on actions that could be causing harm. The Devil’s Advocate perspective can alert us to vulnerabilities and how to reverse them.
This is the 2nd in a 5-part series.
Part 1 | Part 2
Seeking to Solve Problems
A Devil’s Advocate is someone who can provide a unique perspective. She or he can provide an objective and logical counterpoint to emotion that clouds decision-making.
As Rosa Parks said,
“You must never be fearful of what you are doing
when it is right.”
By listening to “contrarian voices,” decision-makers have the opportunity to identify potential problems that would otherwise be too difficult to see.
Read more: What is a Devil’s Advocate Perspective?
Leaders often use a process to gather and evaluate information, called a feedback loop. This system collects input from staff, customers, vendors, and even ex-staff and prior customers. This data can be used to determine what went wrong and how to improve.
Here are the elements of an effective feedback loop system:
Why Negative Feedback is Useful
Whether or not we want to hear it, uncomfortable information is important. Listening to negative feedback can challenge our thinking and allow us to address problems that are hard to recognize.
When we invite views that challenges the current way of doing things, this person is called a Devil’s Advocate. She or he can point out the reasons a situation could result in failure. Unfortunately, Devil’s Advocates are not often included in the decision making process.
Most institutions do have a fail-safe process. Even if leaders don’t want to hear it, anyone can report illegal, unethical, or dangerous activities without repercussions. Someone who does this is called a Whistleblower. By figuratively “blowing the whistle,” she or he calls attention to a potential danger before it gets worse.
Whistleblowers don’t always feel the freedom to speak up, though. When someone is aware of potentially harmful actions but goes along with it, this person could be called a “Yes-Man” or “Yes-Person.” They may want to avoid punishment, embarrassment, or shame. Unfortunately, damage will continue unless someone speaks up.
Throughout history, brave individuals have stood up and taken a firm stance on topics that were unpopular. It takes great courage to speak up against bad management decisions, especially when there are risks of physical or emotional harm, legal action, or even death.
Examples of Devil’s Advocates
Let’s take a look at people who took a stand against injustice. Here are 14 individuals who “blew the whistle” on injustice, often at great professional and personal cost.
#1: Dr. Li Wenliang and Dr. Li-Meng Yan
Chinese doctor Li Wenliang alerted officials about the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 but was threatened by police if he continued to speak out. He later died of the disease. (source: The Guardian)
A Chinese virologist named Li-Meng Yan, PhD with the Hong Kong School of Public Health states that in late 2019, she was required to conduct a secret investigation of a “SARS-like virus” in Wuhan. She believes that COVID-19 was developed in a lab and not from animals, and that is has been used as a bioweapon.
Dr. Yan says she escaped to the United States in order to expose a cover-up about the fatal virus. According to her, the Chinese government was fully aware of the situation but refused to make the information public.(sources: The Sun, New York Post)
#2: Cathy Harris
Cathy Harris worked for 20 years with the U.S. Customs Service and Border Protection at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In 1998, she publicly revealed a discriminatory racial profiling practice. Women of African descent were targeted, detained, strip-searched, and subjected to humiliating interrogations.
As a result, Cathy was fired from her job; she went on to establish the Customs Employees Against Discrimination Association (CEADA, since disbanded) and has received several awards. (source: Cathy Harris International)
#3: Peter Buxtun
Peter Buxtun was a US Public Health Service investigator who exposed the disturbing Tuskeegee medical “research” scandal in 1972, in which hundreds of black men were intentionally infected with syphilis.
Despite his many attempts to blow the whistle starting in 1966, Buxtun was never credited for his efforts. (source: The American Scholar)
#4: Kerrie-Ann Murray
Kerrie-Ann Murray, a payroll manager with World Business Lenders, was fired after refusing to falsify employment data in September 2017.
She claims that her employer hired, then quickly fired, 200 minority employees because of economic incentives. World Business Lenders had collected nearly $3 million in grant subsidies. The case is pending litigation. (source: New York Post)
#5: Kathryn Bolkovac
Human rights advocate Kathryn Bolkovac is a former police investigator and monitor with United Nations International Police Task Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2002, she sued for unfair dismissal as a result of uncovering a sex trafficking in Bosnia.
#6: Bryan Fogel
Bryan Fogel is a journalist and amateur cyclist who exposed Russia’s state sponsored doping program that affected the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
#7: Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, PhD was a Senior Policy Analyst for the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). In 1996, she spoke out against the EPA’s lack of response to a dangerous material called vanadium used in a South African mine. As a result, she experienced reprisal.
Coleman-Adebayo later filed (and won) a civil rights lawsuit. Her experience inspired the No FEAR Act — an acronym for “Notification and Federal Employee Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002.” (source: MarshaColeman-Adebayo.com)
#8: Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub
Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub are “retired Grandma Nancy Drews.” Their amateur investigation of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik ultimately exposes a secret sexual abuse ring run by Catholic priests in Baltimore.
#9: Ashley Judd, Tarana Burke, and Ronan Farrow
Ashley Judd, an actress and human rights activist, first spoke out about sexual harassment she had experienced from producer Harvey Weinstein in 2015. She called him out by name in 2017. Check out an NPR interview, where Ashley discusses the reasons why her commitment to this issue is so strong. (source: Town & Country).
Ashley’s efforts added momentum to the #MeToo movement, which originally began in 2006 with the work of activist Tarana Burke, founder of the nonprofit Just Be Inc. (for survivors of sexual harassment and abuse). Tarana’s book Unbound, to be published in September 2021, describes her story of bringing back empathy to an entire generation.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and son of actor Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen, Ronan Farrow wrote several controversial articles for The New Yorker in 2017. In them, he shared the stories of women who experienced harassment and misconduct by news anchor Bill O’Reilly and director Harvey Weinstein.
Farrow supports his sister Dylan Farrow as she publicly discusses traumatic childhood experiences by their father Woody Allen. The HBO series “Allen v. Farrow,” directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, describes Dylan’s side of the story. (sources: WorkLife with Adam Grant: #MeToo TED Talk, Me Too Movement 2-Year Timeline Refinery29.com, Allen v. Farrow – HBO)
#10: Mathias Corbascio, Thomas Fux, Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, and Oscar Simonson
Known as the “Stem Cell Windpipe Fraud Whistleblowers,” Swedish physicians Mathias Corbascio, Thomas Fux, Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, and Oscar Simonson risked their jobs and reputations by speaking up against “celebrity doctor” Paolo Macchiarini, whose controversial synthetic stem-cell covered windpipe transplants resulted in the death of 7 patients.
After voicing their concerns in 2014, the four physicians were fired and threatened with police reports. They were finally cleared and received the Whistleblower of the Year award (“Årets Visselpipa”) by Transparency International Sweden in 2016. (source: BBC)
#11: Sherron Watkins
Sherron Watkins, former Vice President of Corporate Development at Enron Corporation, helped reveal the depth of Enron’s deceptions in 2001. She warned that Enron “might implode in a wave of accounting scandals” and testfied before a House Commerce subcommittee hearing in February 2002. Sherron testified that Enron’s chief financial officer Andrew Fastow and Chairman Kenneth Lay created misleading financial statements and inflated profit projections.
Her pivotal role is depicted in the 2005 documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room,” based on the exposé book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. (source: The Guardian)
#12: Ilaria Cucchi
Ilaria Cucchi, sister of Stefano Cucchi, spent 10 years fighting for justice after he was brutally beaten and starved while in police custody in 2009. Although the initial case was dropped, a new confession resulted in jail sentences for two officers thanks to Ilaria’s tireless efforts for justice.
#13: Gary Webb
Gary Webb, an investigative reporter with the San Jose Mercury-News, revealed a link between the CIA and drug-running Nicaraguan Contra rebels in 1996. At the time, all partied denied involvement. Gary was found dead in 2004 from two gunshot wounds to the head. Police ruled his death a suicide.
#14: Erin Brokovich
Erin Brokovich is an environmental activist and former legal clerk who revealed a coverup by Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California and initiated the largest class-action lawsuit in US history in 1993.
Honoring Devil’s Advocates
Many individuals take enormous risks by exposing vulnerabilities such as waste, loss, fraud, or abuse. With the exception of this timeline of US whistleblowers, there are very few lists that describe the courage of Devil’s Advocates.
Let’s promote more whistleblowers and Devil’s Advocates. Let us know: Who else has taken a courageous stand against injustice?
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