Honesty Is The Only Policy

Quite a while ago, one of you kind folks out there in reader land took the time to share an important thought with me. After reviewing one of my early leadership commentaries, back in July 2000, this gentleman took the time to drop me a note. He was most generous in his praise of the research that had been done by the members of Harry's Gang, an ad hoc group of people who responded to my call for fire service leadership thinking.

But at the end of his period of praise, he raised a question that I personally found most troubling. Nowhere on the list, he noted, was any mention made of the concept of honesty. The groupthink had covered a wide variety of topics, but had failed to make any mention of honesty, in and of itself. It is just a guess on my part, but I feel that most people thought that integrity was an all-encompassing topic.

There are two ways to look at this. The first would be that we in the group saw honesty as such an obvious part of our leadership persona, and that we must all have presumed that we would simply understand that each of us considered this a given in our world. Or it could be that we just forgot how important that the concept of honesty was to the delivery of effective leadership in the fire service.

It would be my hope that it was the former rather than the latter. Many times during my career in the fire service, it seemed as though truth was a variable commodity. Much like beauty, truth is held hostage to the eye of the beholder, or more correctly the lips of the person uttering his or her version of the truth. Or at the very least the thrust of their concept of what they expect to pass for the truth as it departs from their lips.

I held a discussion on this particular topic with a friend from the world of public school education. I mentioned that I was forced by the limitations of my own brain to stay with the truth. It would seem as though every time I journeyed into the world of creative alterations of the truth, I was caught, as they say, red-handed. When confronted by those in authority with a demand for an instantaneous explanation of my conduct, out would come the truth.

My friend from the educational world agreed with my reasoning for using the truth. She too was a frequent victim of her own honesty. Unfortunately, there are many factions at work in the world that use falsehoods and deception as their stock in trade. Lest you think that I am referring to spies, thugs and thieves, I am not.

I would like to share an important thought with you at this point. During a political battle in 1861, Abraham Lincoln uttered these famous words: "Truth is generally the best vindication against slander." Unfortunately, there are people in the fire service who haven't got a clue as to how to tell the truth. There are a number of versions of the patented organizational falsehood process. Let me share a few that I have identified:

  • Tailoring the truth to the person being addressed.
  • Tailoring the truth to the audience in front of the speaker at any given time.
  • Creating a separate version of the truth for the same person in different circumstances.
  • Telling different stories to different members of the same organization.

I could have gone on at length with variations of these. And I am sure that you would be able to share stories that I have not heard. But these seem to be the basic overall schools of thought within the world of the organizational liar. I do not want you to think that I am without sin.

There are a number of whoppers for which I will have to answer when I approach the Pearly Gates for my date with St. Peter. Some of these prevarications were deceitful, while others came upon me suddenly. Some were uttered to the police officer leaning into my car window. Others to the charming Mrs. Carter as to why I was late getting home from the fire station. And still others were told to that charming young lady at the Asbury Park office of the Internal Revenue Service. None of them was right. And let me share with you that rarely did they work. I know they didn't work with that charming IRS lady.

It is critical to cite Mr. Lincoln again at this point. He once told a caller at the White House: "If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never again regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you can fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." Amen, Mr. Lincoln, although I have met people who dearly loved to try to fool all of us all of the time.

So why is it that people do not always deal in the truth? This is as tough a question to assess as any other problem involving fire department people, and society in general. I do know that many fire service managers think that those of us that make up the great, unwashed mass of rabble out in the fire stations are too stupid to deal with the truth. It is this lack of confidence in the troops that gets a great many officers into trouble.

Other officers are just plain afraid of their people. They feel threatened by the knowledge, skill and enthusiasm of their troops. What better way to feel superior to people that are better trained and motivated than to create an aura of secrecy around yourself? These people set up a web of lies around themselves much like a U.S. Army infantry attack team would set up mines around the perimeter of an ambush area. The enemy is forced to run a gauntlet of explosions and flying steel to reach the troops. So it is with people unsure of their skills. We have to run the gamut of their lies trying to find the truth of their operational imperative.

They feel uncomfortable with the truth, or at least with the fact that subordinates have a better handle on reality than they do. Since their ideas and their commentary have no base in reality, things often go bad. Unfortunately, when things start to go bad because of their lies, things go really bad. And since the people who are doing the work can never get a straight answer, they are forced to work in ignorance.

It has been my personal experience that Aristotle was correct when he stated many centuries ago, "The least deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand fold." He may have been referring to the fact that the use of lies is much like the consumption of potato chips. I have yet to meet the person who could eat just one. The same may be said about people who deal in falsehoods. Each lie leads to a fresh reason for another lie.

Many times, it seems that truth is a variable commodity. Must like beauty, truth is held hostage to the eye of the beholder. Or at least the thrust of truth as it departs from the lips of the person uttering their version of the truth. When I was discussing this with my friend from the world of elementary education, she told me this story.

There has been an enrollment decrease and a cost increase in her school district. It seems like the superintendent of schools lacks the intestinal fortitude to handle the realities of a possible layoff. He wants to be everyone's friend and no one's enemy, so he has taken to telling different people different stories of what is going to happen.

Given the contractual language involved, which is fairly standard for our state, this is not difficult. The junior people are shown the door and the more senior people adjust their positions. But apparently this superintendent can't seem to come to grips with the truth. It is bad enough when he tells the second-grade teachers one thing, the-third grade teachers another and the kindergarten teachers still another. But he is at the point now where he is telling my friend a different story every day.

Far too many people in positions of leadership think that everyone in subservient positions is far too stupid to remember what they were told yesterday. They go on their merry way, thinking that theirs is the only brain in the land of the supposedly stupid. Many of you might be thinking at this moment that my comments are overly harsh and demeaning. I am afraid that the reality of lies and deceit in many places is far worse than I could portray and remain believable.

One of the great benefits of the Internet is the immediacy of many of my communications interactions. If something bad happens to one of my regular correspondents, it does not take them long to share their tale of woe with me. From what I have been able to gather over the past year or so, there are far too many people out there who do not have even a passing interest in the concept of truth. This is sad, because in many instances the focus of the individual who is doing the lying is so inwardly directed that I wonder why people like that ever bothered to become leaders in the first place.

However, like most observers of the human condition, I have a theory regarding why some people will lie, cheat and steal (and I mean this literally and sincerely) their way to the top of the organizational heap in their fire department. I am beginning to believe that these are the people that we made fun of back in high school. They were the ones who said to us, just you wait and see, someday I'll get you.

The problem is that many times we are not the people they meant to get. We just happen to be people that end up in positions of subservience to these people. And these people have become so used to lying and cheating their way up the food chain that truth has become an enemy within their camp.

There may be those among you who think that I am just being cynical. Frankly, I think not. I am just a guy trying to stay on the right side of the line between the truth and the lie. I would urge you to join me, because the results engendered by truth are normally much better than those created by liars.

Let me close by saying the following to you. It was Aristotle who once stated, "All men, by nature, desire knowledge." It was Harry Carter who once said, "Just tell me what's going on boss. Just tell me what's going on. Don't lie to me, man, just tell it like it is. I am not a mushroom. Don't keep me in the dark and feed me fertilizer," although I might have used a different noun.

People have a way of telling when their leader is lying to them. And once you get caught in a lie, you are done for. So start by using the truth, live according to the truth and when you die, be remembered as a straight shooter. It is really as simple as that. Or as the Masons are so proud of stating, "We arrive on the square and depart upon the level."

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is also an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). He may be contacted through his website at Dr.Carter@HarryCarter.com.