The other evening, as I was watching our local professional basketball team in a playoff game, I observed a homemade sign being waved by an enthusiastic fan that simply stated, “The Time is Now.” The obvious intent was that the time to put forth a maximum effort and put it all on the line was now. To use another well used cliché, to seize the moment.
After the game, the words kept swirling around in my mind and it occurred to me that those same words applied to me as the responsible and accountable leader of my fire department.
I was asked to offer a few words on the theme of heroism as it relates to ethics. The theme intrigued me, and as I sat down to write this, I realized that this was an opportunity to speak about a subject that I find to be one of the cornerstones and ultimately a real test of leadership that all leaders face in their careers.
Every position of leadership has its own set of challenges—some very different depending on the business being considered. But ethics and character are common to all of us in positions of leadership, particularly in the public sector.
Whether we lead a large municipal fire department, or a small volunteer fire department, ethical conduct and character define our leadership. Technical knowledge, management skills and administrative ability can be taught, honed and corrected. If we forget to add a zero, cross a t or file a report, there are consequences that may impact our budget or operation. Mistakes in this area can be corrected.
However, unethical conduct, lack of character and unprincipled behavior have a much deeper, negative impact on us, our families, our departments and the fire service. Mistakes or lack of good judgment in these areas are often fatal to careers and have long-lasting, negative effects on the many good, hardworking, dedicated men and women we took an oath to lead and protect.
The IAFC created and adopted its Code of Ethics for Fire Chiefs and IAFC Rules of Conduct (pdf, login required). The codes set out standards for moral and professional conduct of the membership. Yet, as we look across the fire service landscape, what we observe many times is in sharp contrast to what we say we’ll do and how we actually conduct ourselves.
Why is this?
I believe we have to look to the leadership—ourselves—to find the cause and ultimately the solution. As the captain of our ships, we’re ultimately the reasons for the success or failure of our departments in these areas. Our behavior sets the tone for our departments. If we falter in our character, we damage our integrity and ultimately our credibility as leaders. To be ethical requires professional and personal courage that may at some point put our careers on the line. The consequences of making these types of difficult decisions aren’t always pleasant.
During these challenging times, ethical leadership will require character, courage and resiliency if we are to lead our departments into the future. Now is the time for all of us to recommit ourselves to setting a tone of honesty, integrity, selflessness, honor and a sense of duty to our department and our communities.
It is my hope and that of the Human Relations Committee that the IAFC’s Fire Chief Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct will become fully integrated and internalized by all of our members and then widely adopted in departments across the United States.
We need not wait to take action; the time is now.
Hugo Esparza, EFO, CFO, is the chief of the Plano (Tex.) Fire Department and the current chair of the IAFC’s Human Relations Committee.