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A personalized approach to ethical leadership

The International Public Safety Leadership & Ethics Institute offers a guided program of self-discovery to develop a personal leadership approach


The International Public Safety Leadership & Ethics Institute courses cover personal leadership, leading others, organizational leadership, and the challenges of ethical leadership.

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“All leadership starts with the self. Leadership development is a personal journey of exploration.”

These are the guiding principles of the International Public Safety Leadership and Ethics Institute (IPSLEI), as stated by its co-founder and executive director, Kevin Brame.

IPSLEI began through a graduate thesis by Brame and co-founder Patrick McIntosh when they were earning their master’s degrees at Chapman University. From this work they created the Orange County (California) Fire Authority Leadership Institute.

In 2001, Brame was approached by the Public Safety Advisory Collaborative out of the California Community College Chancellor’s Office with grant money to develop a public safety leadership program for the State of California. When the grant money ran out in 2005, Brame formed IPSLEI as an independent nonprofit corporation, basing its initial offerings on the curriculum and programs developed while working with the State of California.

What began as a thesis idea and later expanded to a statewide program is now an international organization that provides educational resources to public safety entities around the world.

A personalized leadership approach

IPSLEI’s mission is to serve the needs of all public safety workers, and this scope is reflected in its instructors and board of directors. Brame served a long career as a fire professional, rising to the rank of deputy chief. Others involved with the organization have backgrounds in policing, corrections, government and other aspects of public service.

IPSLEI’s core offering is a four-course program that guides individuals through the process of developing their own ethical leadership approach.

“To develop individuals’ leadership skills and mindsets, you must begin early in their careers,” Brame explained. “And you must begin with the development of their own personal leadership and ethics, before you can move forward.

The courses cover personal leadership, leading others, organizational leadership, and the challenges of ethical leadership.

Brame emphasized that all leadership development starts at the personal level, where individuals must be given the opportunity to explore their own values and experiences as applied to a leadership role. One unique aspect of the curriculum is its inclusion of humanities-based sources: readings and activities from literature, the arts, philosophy and history.

The curriculum began as a 160-hour in-person experience but has been modified over the years to be more flexible and accommodating to individual needs, especially in the era of COVID.

“We have multiple ways the curriculum can be delivered,” Brame said. “We are able to deliver courses virtually, in a hybrid system or face-to-face.”

IPSLEI runs state programs for the executive development of fire officers in Oklahoma and Oregon. The full curriculum and abbreviated programs have been presented around the country as well as internationally.

A key aspect of IPSLEI’s approach is that it does not provide one definition of leadership for participants.

“Our process is for people to explore leadership,” said Brame. “It’s a facilitated program, not lecture based. Very, very few PowerPoints.”

One example of this hands-on approach is shared analysis, Brame explained: “Maybe you watched a video clip and you had to read this article. Now in small groups, here are critical thinking questions. And you have dialogue in these small groups centered around these questions.” One of these exercises includes discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the opening sequence from the movie “Patton.”

Another example of how the program facilitates personal growth is its requirement for guided journaling: “All the journaling topics are tied to the terminal objectives of the course,” said Brame, emphasizing that the program is academic-based, and attendees can often get college credit for their participation.

Brame underscored that the program is based on observable learning opportunities, which may come through film, written word, discussion, or real-world experience. “Do-Reflect-Learn” is one of the guiding principles of the curriculum. Another principle is what Brame calls Officer-in-Charge Act (OICA). This acronym stands for Observe, Interpret, Correlate, Act. “It’s doing a size up,” commented Brame. “It’s no different from what you do on the job.”

An investment in risk management

In 2015, IPSLEI leadership modified the first course of the curriculum to make it a stand-alone offering. This course, which focuses on personal ethics and leadership, is geared toward public safety academies. The reason for the initiative is because “you can’t wait until someone has been on the job 10 or 15 years before you start teaching them about leadership and ethics,” Brame said. “All these young men and women who set foot in our facility the first day have the ability to exercise leadership.”

There are many examples where individuals do not exercise leadership at all levels of the organization, and the negative outcomes of that affect not only individuals, but also organizations and emergency services overall. Cheating scandals in recruit academies, inappropriate public behavior that is condoned by those in charge; these things not only give the emergency services a black eye, but they also cost taxpayers money through investigations and the need to replace trained members.

“You can’t afford not to do this kind of training,” Brame said. “What you’re talking about is embedding in the minds of these recruits that number one, they make a difference. And number two, they make a difference based upon their actions. And their actions have to be consistent with their own personal values and the values of the organization.”

Ultimately, Brame believes, doing this type of training is a matter of risk management.

While some fire departments push back on the focus on soft skills of leadership, Brame reaffirms the need: “It’s important to get our executive officers and city and county managers to recognize the value of soft skills; in this case, leadership and ethics.”

Looking to the future

IPSLEI continues to expand its focus on leadership. One trademarked program is Books to Badges, one-day events that contribute half of financial proceeds to a scholarship fund. The organization sponsors three $1,000 scholarships every year through the Phi Theta Kappa Foundation. These funds can be applied to relevant academic programs of the recipient’s choice. Brame said that IPSLEI hopes to expand this endeavor in the future.

Above all, IPSLEI is about developing effective, ethical public safety leadership.

“This isn’t about us making money,” Brame said. “We think we bring value-added to the table. Leadership is leadership. The key is how you bring it into the context of the organization you’re dealing with.”

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.