Ethical Behavior

We've all heard the jokes about the lack of ethics in the political arena. Although we get a big laugh out of them, we couldn't be more wrong when we discount the importance of a strong ethical foundation when working within the political process. Politics, in the context of this column, goes way beyond working on campaigns for political office or voter passage of specific initiatives. Politics involves the full range of interaction with elected officials, other community leaders, and all persons involved in any aspect of organizational decision-making, internally or externally.

It has been my experience that the most effective and influential fire service characters politically are the ones that give people every reason to trust them. At the core of any positive relationship resides mutual trust and mutual respect. Much of what is accomplished in the political arena on behalf of the fire service is accomplished through positive relationships, which makes trust and respect essential to success. It is simply not possible to build trust and respect with someone whose behavior is out of balance with what is considered ethical, so ethics is essential to political effectiveness.

Ethics is not cosmic, but it can be complicated at times due in part to the fact that many different people sit in judgment of one's ethical behavior, and often from varied perspectives. Even with that said there are specific things we can consider and do in our interactions with others that will help maintain a strong ethical base and therefore build and maintain a high level of trust and respect with others:

  • Avoid making commitments that we know you can't keep.
  • If we make a deal with someone, keep it. If we can't keep it for some reason, we contact the person we made the deal with and figure out where to go next. Hearing this kind of unfortunate news directly from the person who made the deal in the first place is much better than hearing it from someone else.
  • Be considerate of others' feelings and practice discretion in what we say and do to others. Some actions and words are simply inappropriate, while others may be totally unacceptable and ruin a relationship.
  • Don't do things to other people that we would not want done to us.
  • Continue to practice all the Boy and Girl Scout things we should have learned as kids. Just as when we were in the scouts, these expectations are essential to positive relationships with others.
  • Manage politics in a way that does not put the needs of the group at a disadvantage for someone's personal gain. This is disrespectful to the group and can be seen as an indication of personal greed.
  • Operate within the law and manage financial matters appropriately. Not doing so can send a person to jail.
  • Don't lie, steal or get involved in conflicts of interest.
  • Avoid being self-righteous about the personal beliefs of others. Believing that everyone else should share our personal beliefs can be considered demeaning to others.
  • Model the expectations we have of others. Being who we profess to be and delivering what we expect of others are important to credibility.
  • Understand the difference between shrewd and dishonest because it can be a very fine line to walk. Sometimes we can be way too shrewd for our own good.

These ethical behaviors, if practiced, will help a person build trust and respect with other people. Failing to pay attention to these essential responsibilities usually prevents relationships from being healthy and productive. The reality is that personal and professional influence is diminished when people struggle with these basic ethical guidelines and practices. It impacts the effectiveness of not only the individual involved, but can also produce negative results for organizations.

There is a direct relationship between trust, respect and political influence. Having a keen understanding of this reality will help all of us be more effective in the political arena as we work on behalf of fire service issues and needs.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When in Doubt, Lead series: Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, and many other articles and publications. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services and the author of the soon-to-be-released book Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and as assistant fire chief in Phoenix, AZ, where he served for 27 years. Compton is the past chair of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee. He is also chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors and the chairman of the Home Safety Council Board of Directors.