INTEGRITY – The Most Important Leadership Trait!

INTEGRITY – The Most Important Leadership Trait!

By:Coach Kelly Walsh and Chief Dan Jones

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity.” – Dwight D Eisenhower

Slide1Trust and Integrity are traits that any leader must have in order to be successful. Study after study has demonstrated that people will follow a leader they trust but don’t like over a leader they like but cannot trust. Integrity is not a skill you learn from a book or sitting in a class. It is part of your internal moral compass and personal values system. People search for it in others and value it in friends and family members. Integrity should be one of your most valuable possessions because it affects how others see you, relate to you and value you as a colleague or friend. It also determines their willingness to follow you as a leader.


Think about how you judge others. Who do you trust among colleagues and acquaintances? Does trust place a greater value on that relationship? Are you more apt to rely on them? Especially during tough or difficult times?   What about when you discover someone you have always trusted has not been honest or straight with you? How does that affect the relationship? Once integrity is lost and trust broken, it is nearly impossible to get it back and takes a long, long time before others trust you again, if ever! That is why for leaders, it is the most important trait. Particularly in public safety work where decisions and direction of leaders can have life and death consequences.


Chief Dan

Over the course of our careers and lifetimes we will find ourselves faced with many situations and decisions that will test our integrity. These are not always major moral dilemmas but many times are little day-to-day events that only you will ever know about. The situations could be inconsequential but affect others in a way that slowly builds our reputation for trust or tears it down. It can be as simple as the honor system for a candy rack in the fire station or how complete you do your assignments and are accountable for it. Examples; you really wanted a Milky Way bar but didn’t have the change on you so you tell your self you will put the money in the honor box later but then forget to do so. Or your job is to check the ladder truck’s tool box at shift change but you lingered too long getting coffee to do it and when the Engineer asks you for his check-off sheet was the tool box checked, you say yes.


At other times the test of integrity will be major.   I will share an example from my own experience. During the time I was Division Chief for EMS in my Department in Florida it came time for our 2 year ACLS recertifications. This involved all paramedics taking a 2-day refresher and then a written and practical skills test. Everybody hated doing it and for staff medics it was especially difficult and required study because we didn’t have as much field practice. A couple of weeks before the recertifications I received my new ACLS certification card in the mail from the County Medical Director. Thinking it a mistake, I called the Medical Director’s office to report I had not yet taken the recert test. I was told that the Medical Director knew that all of the Chief Paramedics we very busy and didn’t have much time to study so he was just “administratively recertifying” us (about 12 folks countywide out of over 350 medics). I was astonished and at first relieved that I would not have to take the test. But then I questioned whether this was right? If my paramedics had to retest but I didn’t, was that fair? Did the sanctioning body at the time (American Heart Association) condone this type of action? How could I supervise medics that had tested while I was given a pass?


I called the Medical Director back and said I could not accept the recert and would take the test. I was told to send the card back and not say anything to anyone else! This was (as we say in the South) a clue! I was now worried not only for my own integrity but also for the integrity of our EMS system. I returned the card with a letter copied to my Fire Chief and City Manager) explaining that I could not accept a non-tested recertification. It set off alarms and soon the Medical Director pulled all of the Paramedic Chief’s cards back and claimed it was a mistake. Ultimately he lost his job. And shockingly, a couple other Departments’ EMS Chiefs called me to gripe that I had caused them to have to take the test. But I didn’t care because I could look my own medics in the eye because they and I both knew I didn’t take the pass.


Coach Kelly

An integrity moment in my career came when I was wrapping up an assessment center for a Fire Captain’s Promotional Exam. I was running and rerunning all of the test scores from the components of the testing. Candidates were promoted in score order so it was critical to get it right – down to the 100th of a point. For some reason, I decided to go back and recheck the written exams that sent the top group on to the assessment center. In doing that, I found that I had let someone test who had not passed the written test. I could have died. He just missed it by one point but he should not have been there. He came in 6th on a list of 14 when all was said and done. I remember sitting there at my desk thinking of all of the consequences of my mistake.


I realized that he could get promoted before or instead of someone who had passed the written. The consequences would impact someone’s career and it was unacceptable. I had to admit my mistake. It was a terrible call to make of course. I asked him to come in to look at his test. I took full responsibility for taking his time and let him look over his written as long as he wanted to in case he saw something I didn’t. I was ribbed for a long time (calculators were regularly piled on my desk!). But, I was told that it was appreciated because it built trust. They knew I wouldn’t just let something go because it was uncomfortable for me. Luckily for me, that guy is a successful chief now and we are still friends!


Chief Dan

When you are faced with a moral decision that can test your integrity ask yourself these four questions;

  1. Is it legal?
  2. Is it ethical?
  3. Is it the right thing to do?
  4. Is it for my own personal gain over others?


Many times no one will ever know what you did or decided but you always will. What you do when no one is looking is the true test of character. Can you be comfortable knowing what you decided or what you did? Would you be willing to have your loved ones know what you did? Or your friends or colleagues? Would you be willing to have your decisions, words or actions be on the front page of your hometown newspaper? Or willing to have your actions publicly debated by an Ethics Panel? While this may seem extreme, consider how extreme it would be to lose your integrity or reputation for trust.


Several years ago The Pew Institute did some studies to determine the level of public trust in institutions. Those studies showed that the public trusts the Fire Service over everything else except the institution of family. The Fire Service was even trusted above organized religion! Are you part of that trust? Do you contribute through words and actions to that reputation for integrity?


Coach Kelly

I think most of us think we have good integrity and that people trust us but what are some things you can do to check that? Here are a few:

  • Check your words and actions – do they match? Do you have the same requirements of others as yourself? No one trusts a person who throws around rules but doesn’t believe they apply to him or her.
  • Do you look for excuses or justifications instead of admitting mistakes? If we are busy finding someone or something to blame, we may be deflecting a problem that we could be solving.
  • Does your self-esteem have a strong connection to the opinion of others? Pleasing people makes us more likely to compromise our integrity.
  • Seek feedback. We all have blind spots. Consider asking a few appropriate people for honest feedback about your integrity and leadership.


If you agree that trust and integrity are the most important traits of a leader, what are you doing to maintain your own integrity? What do followers say of you when it comes to their trust? While many like to say “I don’t care what others think of me” this is one area where you better care what others think of you. If you are a leader, or aspire to be a leader, integrity better be in the top shelf of your toolbox and you need to use it everyday.


“It is true that integrity alone won’t make you a leader, but without integrity you will never be one”. Zig Ziglar



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Contact Information:


Kelly Walsh Email:

Cell Number: (919) 995-4996

Dan Jones Email:

Cell Number: (919) 697-5976