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Mind of Jacka: Without Courage, What Are We?

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU May 30, 2024

I would like to strongly suggest that, when you are looking for the next book to put on your reading list, you pick up Profiles In Courage by John F. Kennedy. In fact, you might want to drop what you’re reading right now and go straight to it. It was published back in 1956 and, when I was growing up, it was quite the rage. However, this is my first time dipping my toe in this fascinating piece of history and, again, you would do well to do so, also.

The book tells the stories of eight U.S. Senators who had the courage to buck public opinion and career-ending pressures to do the right thing. Here’s a quote from the first chapter:

“Senators, we hear, must be politicians — and politicians must be concerned only with winning votes, not with statesmanship or courage.”

Yeah, the book is almost 70 years old. However, the theses and concepts seem wrenched from today’s headlines.

We are seeing perception and pressure cause some of our leaders to make unwise choices in pursuit of perceived positive perceptions and reduced pressure. And even now, unfortunately, the politicians with the courage to stand up against that pressure seem few and far between. I won’t go into the long list of those who have cowered, nor the short list of those who have stood up for what is right. I’ll leave that to you as extra credit. But reading this book is a reminder that our situation is not new (those who do not learn from the past, etc., etc.), and success comes from the courageous few.

Such pressures can be found in all walks of life. And internal audit is no different. With that in mind, the next book you should pick up is The Politics of Internal Auditing by Patricia K. Miller and Larry E. Rittenberg. Through a combination of statistics and stories, they tell the chilling tale of the ethical pressures endured by internal audit leaders, as well as how to cope. And those stats indicate prevalence outpaces rarity:

  • 54.7% of respondents said they were directed to omit or modify an important audit finding, with 17.2% indicating it happened three or more times.
  • 49% of respondents were directed to not perform audit work in an area the CAE viewed as high risk.
  • 31.5% of participants were directed to perform work in a low-risk area so an executive could investigate or retaliate against another individual.

While these figures may be startling, I fear it may actually be worse. These statistics come from people who were willing to share their experiences. How many more are out there who did not participate because they folded to these pressures rather than standing up?

Courage is such an integral part of internal audit that the new Global Internal Audit Standards have given courage and integrity a front row seat. In the second domain, Ethics and Professionalism, the very first principle, Demonstrate Integrity, has as the first Standard, “Honesty and Professional Courage.”

The associated requirement says, “Internal auditors must perform their work with honesty and professional courage.” Two paragraphs later, the requirements include, “Internal auditors must exhibit professional courage by communicating truthfully and taking appropriate action, even when confronted by dilemmas and difficult situations.” (Emphasis in both quotes is mine.)

Courage for internal auditors is a big deal. Without courage and integrity (because the two go hand in hand) our work is fluff and dross with no weight nor backbone.

I am sure we have all seen our own local profiles in internal audit courage. For me, I watched an audit manager make the difficult choice to turn in a good friend — a meet-for-Thanksgiving/wives-were-best-friends/plans-for-retirement-together good friend. The friend was a senior manager who violated company policies in such a way that regulators soon would have swooped down to render significant fines. I watched as another internal auditor put his career at risk because his manager would not take the appropriate actions regarding a significant risk. He had the courage to go to the assistant vice president (AVP) to ensure something was done.

And, of course, internal auditors should never forget the story of Cynthia Cooper. (There’s book number three for you: Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower.)

We would like to believe that these profiles in internal audit courage are not the exception. Yet, I find it much easier to recollect stories of weakness in the face of pressure — countless stories I have heard or lived through in which less-than-palatable actions were taken: An internal audit AVP who was told to investigate another department and swept it under the rug instead. The leaders who took the side of a major advertiser rather than have anything come forward that might besmirch the advertiser’s reputation. The manager who refused to allow a scope expansion or additional audit work for fear of bringing on the wrath of the client.

How much bravery/courage actually exists within our audit departments? I wonder. And I wonder because I’m afraid of the answer. Because, in the broader world, it is the less-than-courageous who bring down our profession. And we have to turn the tide; we have to make courage the rule, not the exception.

Two blog posts ago, I talked about the need for us to have a movement to raise the perception of internal audit in the business world. And I believe searching for and proclaiming our acts of courage is one way to do this. We are a profession that is a partner with the business, but we are also a profession that hangs its hat on its integrity. And, yes, that integrity means that sometimes the best action for the organization may conflict with the personal aims of others. And sometimes that means that integrity may be to our detriment. Which is where courage comes in. Because, without courage and integrity, we have nothing.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Mike Jacka is co-founder and chief creative pilot of Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.