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Ethics and Leadership: One Decision at a Time

Earlier this year, I had the privilege to attend a keynote presentation by Stan Malm at the 2012 Southwest Fire Rescue Conference in Frisco, Texas. His presentation, “Leadership Lessons from the Holocaust,” asked how a nation and the world could allow the Holocaust to take place. What made it so powerful and thought provoking was that he didn't take an academic approach, but compelled us to examine ourselves as individuals and how much impact we—as individuals—can make.

The program peeled back the foundations of leadership, ethics and moral judgment layer by layer and allowed us to delve inward and examine ourselves at a very gut level.

I walked away from this program understanding that seemingly small decisions made along the path of life lead to outcomes that—when taken with decisions of others in our professional or personal circles—eventually have a cumulative, powerful and sometimes tragic effect.

In terms of ethics and leadership, we have the ability to make an independent choice and to follow our principles and sense of morality. But do we do this all the time? This is a difficult question for any individual and certainly for any leader.

In the abstract, we may say that of course we do and of course we would. But would we make the same decision:

  • If our security were at risk because of it?
  • If our job were at stake?
  • If the consequences of that decision would deny our families their security?

Clearly, the stakes aren’t always that high, but we could be passed over for promotion, become alienated by our team, be ostracized within our social groups, face physically and mentally debilitating stress, etc.

Are we willing to place ourselves in this kind of jeopardy when we face an ethical decision? Do we succumb to peer pressure, political influence or conflict avoidance? Do we simply take the path of least resistance?

This, in many ways, was the core leadership lesson in Malm’s presentation.

The outcome of any situation an organization may face can be traced back to individuals who made the decisions—however seemingly small—that eventually led to these outcomes. Some deplorable situations could have been avoided if any one of those individuals had made a different decision along the way, resulting in a completely different outcome.

Diversity and inclusiveness is the obvious example for the fire and emergency service. How much spent money, anxiety, court battles, bad public relations and stress would be avoided if every chief officer who saw a joke or heard an untoward comment simply said, “That’s unacceptable.”

How much further down the road would we be as a profession? How many good men and women would not have left? How many more would be banging on our door to join us?

While this is the most obvious example, we also have a powerful example of success. We see what differences have been made in firefighter safety and the reduction of line-of-duty deaths because individuals are speaking out and taking simple actions to change course. We’ve all heard stories of the company officer who stood up against the chief or the chief who risked angering firefighters to make safety a priority.

We all have the power to make a difference through our decisions. At the basic level, this is where ethics lie and where introspection has to take place.

We know what we expect of others, but can they expect the same from us? Inclusion, respect and integrity are all things we seek from others, and through our decision making—our leadership—this is what we demonstrate to them. The hard truth, however, is that being inclusive and respectful and behaving with integrity may sometimes be difficult.

As the leaders of our organizations, we must be willing to make that decision to speak or take action against something we know is counter to our own ethics and that may threaten our relationships, political influence and, in some cases, our security.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, then Senator John F. Kennedy wrote,

“In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience—the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men—each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient—they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.”

After listening to Malm’s presentation, I can clearly see that one person deciding to step forward and say something, multiplied by many others, can make a difference. Leadership, one decision at a time.

Hugo Esparza recently retired as the fire chief in Plano, Texas. He is the chair of the IAFC Human Relations Committee.

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