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I Ask You: Is Loyalty or Honesty More Important

Honesty or loyalty…it’s a simple question, right? Or is it? Those three words have stirred up some enlightening conversations in my world as of late and I felt the need to share them with you. I have come to the conclusion that leadership is 95% a state of mind and 5% application! Now, in that context these two concepts are perhaps the crux of your success or failure, and let me say they cut both ways. Equally of note, to define true “brotherhood” those I have asked used these two terms interchangeably.

Please allow me to paint a picture; recently I participated in a promotional board, not unlike others I have conducted, and in the process of helping an agency determine the best candidate for promotion a question was asked that shook the foundation of my moral being. Imagine if you will three professionals on one side of the table and one hopeful candidate on the other. Predetermined questions were fired at the first candidate and answers were given as one might expect. After the official experience had been given its due, one of my peers on the board posed a question that at first seemed routine, but inevitably took root in my simpletons’ brain. He offered, and I quote, “No explanation is necessary, please answer from your heart. Which is more important to you, honesty or loyalty?”

Holy co! Insert Mack truck here……What an amazing question! I know, I know, you are thinking that this big guy has gone off the deep end. Well perhaps, but I assure you that this is not where my train derailed. Stay with me for a minute and I assure you it will be worth it, or at the very least be entertaining.

As some 20 or so people came into the board that day, I sat and waited for each response to my colleague’s inquiry like a crackhead waiting for payday. First of all, I challenge any who read this article to answer that simple question without an explanation, I will offer that I find myself grossly incapable of doing so. Then, go a step further. Pose this question initially to your crew/shift/ bay floor. Watch the discussion fly! Now, if you are as amazed at the replies as I found myself, go yet a step further. Pose this question to your superiors!

Now, please don’t go hounding the chiefs to the point of dismissal. But wait for the appropriate time and place and in common conversation and feel free to throw me under the bus. Try something like, “Hey Chief, you know I read an article on the other day and this jackass suggested that I ask you….” I grant you full rights and privileges to do exactly that, because I have learned what that one simple question can offer us all as insight and understanding of our culture, our peers, and our people in general. Now, fair warning be given – you have to be open minded and you have to listen.

In the interest of sharing, I will tell you the following:

  • There is no correct answer (I can hear a lot of people screaming at this one)
  • Those who answer the question truthfully will have an explanation
  • Some will say that the question sucks (It depends on… or…that is stupid)
  • The conversation will continue periodically throughout the shift/day
  • You will gain insight into the values and moral fabric of whomever answers
  • Remember that we all have different views
  • Don’t hold someone’s answer against them. Work with their answer to the collective benefit
  • You should compare your thoughts to every answer and be willing to adjust accordingly

In my conversations, the answers I have heard have reaffirmed my belief in some people’s strength of character, while others have caused me concern. I have heard answers like:

  • You can’t have one without the other
  • I’d rather someone be honest to me than loyal
  • I’d rather someone be loyal to me than honest
  • You can’t be honest or loyal all the time
  • You are loyal by being honest
  • You are honest by being loyal
  • Well, if this or if that, yada, yada, yada…               

Ultimately the intent of asking this question is simply to get your people talking. Talking about themselves, about the fire service, about our culture and values, as well as what they hope that good leaders believe.  All of their answers can give great insight into what is good and perhaps not so good in your people. And most importantly in my book, you will gain a deep well of information from which to draw upon in your leadership profile.

The challenge then remains to process and utilize the information that you gather from this thought-provoking question. Reinforce your own morals and motivations; be open minded enough and willing enough to adapt that which you have always held true. Improve where it is needed and revel in the areas where no improvement is needed, but never, my friends, rest on good enough.

This is where I give you my “get out of jail free card” as I am no expert in psychology or anything really if the truth all be told. This narrative is merely the collective of my own observations and I share them not to impress you or make you think of me in any higher capacity.

Instead it is my hope that you will take my observations and make some of your own, read more about values in leadership. I might point you toward Dr. Harry Carter’s article that I now see on as continued credence to the importance of our values. Whatever you do, please be sure to draw upon these concepts as means to broaden your own depth and abilities as a leader wherever you find yourself in your career. And when this little exercise is all over, ask yourself, Deep down in your own heart, “What is more important to you, honesty or loyalty?”

LEE LEVESQUE is a firefighter and public affairs officer for the Lady's Island St. Helena Fire District in South Carolina. A 20 year veteran of the fire service, both career and volunteer, and is a fire and life safety educator instructor. Lee is a member of the NFA Alumni Association. You can reach Lee by e-mail at: