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Following the Light: Guiding Principles to Live and Work By

As fire chiefs, we should be—and in most cases are—held to a higher standard than anyone else in our organizations. We're the face of the fire service to our communities, its leaders and our own departments' members.

These higher standards encompass both our professional and our personal lives. One particular virtue that will always be judged and always on display is our integrity—both on and off of the job.

So how do you define integrity? Is it your consistency in your words or your actions? Or is it your honesty, your kindness or your reputation?

If you said yes to any of these, you're not wrong. Each one of us defines our personal integrity based on our own values, morals, ethics and mores. It's those core values we were taught as a child that follow us throughout our lives.

For some, integrity is based simply on their name. That is, if they say they'll do something or that something has been done, their name is their pledge. Socrates noted:

Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of – for credit is like fire; when once you have kindled it you may easily preserve it, but if you once extinguish it, you will find it an arduous task to rekindle it again. The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.

So why does it sometimes appear that fire chiefs forget these tenets? Almost daily, trade journals and blogs run stories of fire chiefs, paid and volunteer, who have resigned, been fired or arrested for an action that simply could have been avoided if they remembered to treat their name and their personal integrity as the most important thing they possessed.

Their activities may involve money, alcohol, sex or moral turpitude. Or maybe some other transgression from what's expected of those in the high position in trusted local government organizations. Whatever the acts, they're usually disgraceful to the person and the position.

It's important to remember that as a fire chiefs, we each live in a fish bowl. It doesn't matter if an individual is a paid or a volunteer fire chief; the issues are still the same. Both our professional and personal lives are constantly on display; someone always see the actions we take.

Unfortunately, some people are just looking for others to make a mistake. Whether it's an act of omission or commission, in today's world of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and text messaging, your entire community will know within an instant of something happening. You'll be observed when you least expect to be.

Everyone who has made it to the pinnacle of the career ladder knows of officers who have been placed in very uncomfortable situations. But what's a fire chief to do to avoid these potentially career- and reputation-ending situations? Is it just an occupational hazard that will constantly haunt us throughout our administrations?

The answer is no. A set of guiding principles can help influence decision-making. Living according to a set of fundamental standards can keep people on the straight and narrow—to not go astray, in either their professional lives or their personal affairs.

What characteristics may be included in such a set of principles? The laws of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts provide a good starting point:

  • Trustworthy / Honest
  • Loyal / Fair
  • Helpful
  • Friendly
  • Courteous
  • Considerate and kind
  • Obedient / respectful
  • Cheerful
  • Thrifty
  • Brave / strong
  • Clean
  • Reverent

These points of light, individually and collectively, provide the truths that fire chiefs—and everyone—should maintain to uphold their personal and professional integrity. Simply following guiding principles too can keep most of us out of trouble or at least minimize the impact of issues when they arise.

In closing, remember these words of John F. Kennedy, which offer more light to the path of integrity:

For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each of us, recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state, our success or failure, in whatever office we hold, will be measured by the answers to four questions: First, were we truly men of courage? … Secondly, were we truly men of judgment? … Third, were we truly men of integrity? … Finally, were we truly men of dedication? [emphasis added]

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