What’s in your ‘fine print’?
Trust, honor and ethics must be central to your individual decision-making and organizational culture
What do we REALLY mean when we talk about trust, honor and ethics (THE)? Beyond the ideas, concepts, theories, teachings and general hyperbole that many mission and vision statements reflect, how does the positivity of THE manifest within you and your organization? I’m asking you to look beyond the statements and proclamations to really consider your personal and organizational “fine print.”
Let’s take a look behind the curtain.
When we talk about personal or organizational trust, there are three pieces I want you to consider:
- The public’s trust in you and your organization: They trust that you will show up when they call, at the right place, at the right time, with the right resources, to do the right things. They trust that their lives, wellbeing and personal belongings will be protected while in your hands, and they trust that you will do no more harm through your actions than has already been done.
- Coworkers trust in each other – you, them, everyone: You trust that each successive level within the organization is doing the right things to take care of each other, whether through budgeting, HR decisions, apparatus purchases, staffing allotments or in the physicality of each other’s safety from call to call – there is organizational trust.
- Trust in yourself: This is the self-confidence to make decisions smoothly in many different and fluid environments. Dealing with politics, community issues, personnel concerns, financial considerations, personal/ethical dilemmas, or while dealing with the host of panic-inducing scenarios we deal with daily, you have personal trust that you can and will do the right thing.
Each of these elements of trust feeds off the other dynamically, manifesting in ways that may not be easily visible to every member of the team from day to day.
Honor speaks to a healthy respect for the past, present and future.
Past: We make the sojourn to Emmittsburg, Maryland, annually to recognize the sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives in the service to others. We must not reflect on this recognition simply as a somber or celebratory event. To truly honor our fallen firefighters, we have a solemn responsibility to learn from every LODD – each one of them has lessons from which we can learn.
Beyond LODDs, we have a responsibility to honor both our internal and external history and evolution, all the way from bucket brigades and horses to the SCBA, automatic sprinklers and motorized/electric vehicles of today. Understanding where we’ve been helps pave the way for improvements in the future.
Present: Our leadership responsibility connected to the lessons learned of the past rests first in the responsibility to investigate LODDs and significant events and second with the implementation of recommendations made from those investigations. Those present-day recommendations and lessons learned must not simply be allowed to lie on a shelf as a “problem identified.” The single most impactful functional event during my time as chief involved “problems identified.”
After the Prince George’s County Safety Investigation Team Report from the 57th Avenue event, I had to resolve the fact that our organization had allowed at least 23 recommendations, as captured in 20 previous recommendation reports over 20 years, to sit on a shelf, relegated to “problems identified” over and over again. We had not honored anyone by allowing this to occur. So, we set along a path to not only honor the past but also the safety and organizational resolve of the present and future by implementing these changes, one (or two) at a time.
- Future: Technologic advances will have profound effects on both society and our individual functionality. Whether virtual reality, artificial intelligence, electric vehicles or any other advanced technology that’s on our doorstep or already in our academies, we have a responsibility to respect and honor how these advancements affect our constituents and our response mission. I certainly don’t have all those answers, and frankly, none of us directly controls the outcomes. We will, however, control our planning and emergency response to the outcomes.
Note: Honorability may be subjective to some from a cultural discussion perspective; however, as we’ve discussed before, fires, wrecks, heart attacks and other emergencies don’t “know” cultural differences. Our personal and organizational challenge, with respect to honorability, is to balance respect for everyone’s differences while exercising the inherent trust within our service to do the right thing.
Among trust and honor, ethics is seemingly the most challenging for us, yet it is element most within our control. It’s not enough to simply say “follow the law.” The law-of-the-land is the basis for the legality of our actions and activities, but ethics tends to challenge our personal actions, which will often call into question the trust that the public or our organization has with us.
I’d like to think that our professional development is enough to keep us on the straight-and-narrow – to keep us out of trouble. If only it were that easy. You can have every degree or credential you want, but one significant lapse in judgment can sabotage any trust you’ve developed. My personal observation is that significant lapses in judgment are not one-off occurrences and may have underlying issues that tell a deeper story.
The fine print
The trust-honor-ethics code above is the high-level outline. Think of it like buying a new car, with that general information serving as the sales pitch. But when it comes to a new car purchase, the devil is in the details with respect to financing, warranties, multiple disclaimers and operating instructions – the fine print.
We have choices every day that impact our own fine print. How we deal with political pressures, financial responsibilities, personnel conflicts and issues, community influences, operational responsibilities, personal/family concerns, etc. The fine print of our decisions is what helps build or degrade all levels of trust described above. Here are several ways:
- Social media postings. Posting to social media while supposedly engaged in fire and rescue operations not only calls into question your personal choices but will severely challenge the public’s trust in your organization’s ability to get the job done. Additionally, it is important that our personnel fully understand that the first amendment does not protect them from consequences of their “speech.” You will not be immune to the legal considerations of your posts.
- Operational readiness and response. This includes everything from the readiness of your response fleet to the training and preparedness of your personnel. Are you maintaining your fleet based on NFPA standards? Is your training regimen and career development program (if you have one) providing not only the opportunity but also the right information and direction for your personnel to perform in dynamic environments?
- Community risk reduction (CRR). I’m not sure why we make this so difficult. Some of the most unconscionable comments I’ve heard from chiefs over the years involve CRR activities. Whether it’s residential fire sprinklers that we KNOW reduce fire deaths or more traditional school activities, why do we not have better continuity with these programs? I’ve heard “we’re going to prevent ourselves out of a job with those sprinklers” or “I won’t be able to get any members to come around if they have to go do prevention talks.” I won’t justify ANY of those types of comments, but I will suggest that changing your mindset is 100% within your control.
- Personal performance. NONE of us is perfect. So, how do we demonstrate the qualities and fulfil the expectations for ourselves and for those whom we serve? I wish it was as simple as giving you the acronym JDTRT – Just Do The Right Thing – or for you to simply challenge yourself to a higher standard. There is certainly a host of possible traps for us to find ourselves in – participation in bullying, lack of fitness/nutrition, inappropriate political/union/financial engagements, intoxication or use of illicit drugs/medications, the viewing of inappropriate materials or participation in inappropriate activities, and of course, breaking laws. I’m reminded of many instances over the past 20 years where a firefighter’s decision made the headlines and ended up a reference in a conference session. From statements like, “It’s not the taxpayers’ money by the time it gets to us” to the headlines screaming, “firefighter sets fire, then responds” or to the pronouncements of innocence over evidence to the contrary, WE control the outcomes of each and every one of these events.
Amid a culture of peer pressure, it can be easy to follow. It is MUCH more difficult to lead in these environments. Remember, leadership will not always mean that your choices are popular with the troops or that the members will immediately understand the gravity of your decisions. Remember to use the “wall judge” as your sixth sense when dealing with the dynamic complexities of management and leadership.
While there is not always a book on the shelf to tell you what the right thing is, it is our responsibility to KNOW what it means. We cannot allow ourselves to simply get caught up in being “one of the guys or gals” or to accept a momentary lapse in judgment that compromises organizational/public trust and safety. Your training and career development should prepare you to overcome these challenges and to understand what the right thing is, without having to search for excuses.
Will politics influence the right thing? Absolutely.
Will finance influence the right thing? Absolutely.
Will self-serving professional survival be your hallmark? Let’s hope not.
Will you strive to help others achieve their maximum potential and ensure that you leave your organization for the better? Let’s hope this is your driving influence and ultimately is baked into all aspects of your fine print.