Karpluk: Ethics Lessons from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

Canadian Fire Chief Les Karpluk uses some of Mayor Rob Ford's tales to illustrate the importance of ethics in the fire service.


I think it is fair to say that the fire service understands the importance of ethics and that it is a key ingredient in leadership. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines ethics as “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad.” Rather than complicate things, I hope we can agree that ethics in the fire service is really a fundamental understanding of common values and principles where we clearly understand the difference between right and wrong.

So, what brings me to an ethical blog? I want to explore the tale of two Mayors from two “great” cities in Canada - Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

In the later part of June 2013 the Elbow and Bow rivers spilled over their banks and caused the evacuation of about 75,000 Calgarians out of their homes and in areas of Calgary’s downtown core. I followed Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi with great interest for days as communicated with the media while dealing with the flooding issues, the hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure, devastation of residential areas and the evacuation of citizens.

This is nothing new to cities in North America and Calgary isn’t the first city to be hit by a flash flood, but what I remember most is how Mayor Nenshi handled himself with integrity. He became known for the “Nenshi Nouns” that he didn’t speak while he was very stressed and dealing with people who felt it would be fun to canoe on the Bow River while it was flooding areas of Calgary. Mayor Nenshi stated, “I have a large number of nouns that I can use to describe the people I saw on the Bow River today. I am not allowed to use them…I’m not allowed to invoke the Darwin law.”

I have to admit he had my attention at that point. He could have used his nouns, but he knew it would be ethically wrong. During many of his interviews he was visibly drained and yet he lead with integrity and professionalism.

Recently Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert poked fun…Ok, they had a great time slamming Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. (feel free to check out the YouTube clips.)

I want to take you on an interesting journey on the Mayor Rob Ford ethical train wreck.

Before I proceed, I want to make it clear that my intentions are not to point fingers and hold a flag and parade with my personal judgment. I do however feel very strong that the ethical expectations for those in the fire service is very high, and I believe the same goes for those in the political arena. In this blog, I merely want to identify the importance of ethics in not only our profession, but in those who have direct control over our profession.

One of the things taught in media training courses is that you need to be honest with the media. If you don’t know the facts, state it and move on, but be sure to get the facts and communicate them when appropriate, and project to the media your honesty and sincerely…at all times. Countless leaders have made mistakes, but when they “sincerely” admitted to their mistakes, and demonstrated by their actions that they are “sincerely” sorry - then the general population usually follows in the spirit of forgiveness.

Let’s see how a sincere apology can work for the leader that is clearly in the wrong.

In April 2006, while being a city councilor at the time, Rob Ford was escorted from a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game for being intoxicated and belligerent. At first he adamantly denied being at the hockey game and according to Wikipedia he later stated, “I reflected on it last night, and talked to my family. I came forward and admitted it. That's all I can do. I mean, I'm not perfect-being in politics; you're in the spotlight all the time. I made a mistake. I made a major mistake. I really regret it.” This sounds like an apology to me.

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