Rowley has dealt with moral dilemmas firsthand. Her whistleblowing within the FBI led Time magazine to name her as one of three Persons of the Year in 2002.
Rowley wrote a 13-page memorandum to FBI Director Robert Mueller claiming that FBI personnel in Washington failed to act on information from the Minneapolis Field Office about Moussaoui's suspected involvement with the Sept. 11 attacks.
Rowley said in her talk that errors are inevitable in any organization. Efforts should focus not on eliminating errors, but on constructive methods of handing problems.
"You are going to make mistakes. The question is, what do you do about them?" Rowley said.
Ignoring problems only creates more serious repercussions. Rowley defended the practice of whistleblowing, distinguishing it from leaking or tattling.
Rowley shared her four criteria that qualify an act as whistleblowing. First, the problem is life and death. ("In a corporate, it could be live savings at risk," Rowley said.)
Second, the whistleblower must be motivated by concern for the general good, not by hope for personal gain. Third, the whistleblower must be certain that he or she is right. Finally, the whistleblower must pursue the most constructive option.
Secrecy and an unwillingness to listen often force whistleblowers to seek media attention to correct the problem, Rowley said.
"If you are in an organization that wont deal with the problem, take it outside the organization," she said.
Rowley denied that whistleblowers are attempting heroism or trying to expose the company to public scrutiny.
"They actually almost all are proceeding internally," Rowley said. She cited the examples of the Catholic Churchs investigation into the claims of priest abuse. Although investigations began as early as the 1980s, Rowley said, officials were unwilling to take the necessary first step of admitting the wrongdoing.
"Secrecy is a huge problem," Rowley said. "It does not help ethical decision making."
Rowley faulted the intelligence community for an extreme degree of internal secrecy.
"Already youre laying the groundwork for improper decision making," she said.
In addition, when businesses or organizations give the impression that they do not want to hear bad news, they foster the idea that it is better to cover up mistakes than to acknowledge and deal with them, however costly a step that may be, both in terms of money and in terms of reputation.
Not taking action can destroy an individuals mental health, Rowley said. Preferably, a chain of command would allow people to freely share information about potential problems with their superiors, relieving them of the pressure of feeling that they have to fix or hide problems themselves.
"Ideally, you have the best, smartest boss in charge," Rowley said, also mentioning an open door policy. That model leader would want to hear problems. Rowley cited nuclear plants as good examples: organizations that understand the life-and-death gravity of multiple open communication channels.
However, Rowley said, individuals must remain vigilant.
"You will never eliminate the need for whistleblowers," she said.