The Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership

Chief Dan Jones

Chief Dan Jones

It’s always good to remember what we were taught by our mentors, learned valuable lessons from experiences and hopefully we are passing those components on to the next generation. Listed below are The Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership, which I was raised on during my early years in the fire service. These commandments are right on, not only for those of us in the fire service, but every profession and in all areas of life.


Here are The Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership:

1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway!

2. If you do well, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do well anyway!

3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway!

4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do it anyway!

5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway!

6. The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest minds. Think big anyway!

7. People favor underdogs, but follow top dogs. Fight for the underdogs anyway!

8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway!

9. People really need help, but may attack you if you help them. Help people anyway!

10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give your best anyway!


Ironically, recently I was searching for something else in my office when I ran across an old textbook that I utilized while going through the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) Company of Development Series many years ago. One of the authors of the book, recently retired Fire Chief Dan Jones, who wound up being my mentor. The book Managing People published by ISFSI happened to fall to the floor during my search and randomly opened up to page 32 where these commandments were listed. Guess that was a sign I needed a refresher on these.


This just happened to be at an opportune time in my life when I was looking to clarify focus, create drive and provide sound direction for a project I am working on at work. These commandments were like a sign from above.


Over the past several years, I’ve had many discussions with colleagues across the country about the issues and frustrations we encounter on a daily basis in the fire service. It can be depressing. I am sure it’s not just the fire service but most every other profession as well. The future holds so many uncertainties in many people’s minds. I’ve watched friends with more than 25 years be laid off. We see fire stations closing in metro departments, training centers shut down and good leaders cut at the knees by ramrod political events and budget woes.


I believe the book falling open to the exact page of The Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership is one of those events, the kind that make you say, OK, I get the hint! Get up and do something about it and be part of the solution and not just gripe about the problem.


My emotions with situations in the fire service are like riding a roller coaster. Many issues influence my feelings. I often find myself disheartened with current events that happen routinely in our business, then the next minute I am on cloud nine. It is easy to fall to the glass half empty side of the fence when in reality the glass is half full. After getting a dose of reality from a coincidence of a book falling open to these leadership commandments, I realize that the need to push forward is even more important. We must push forward, work tirelessly and never give up, as there are people to influence, lead and develop for the next great generation of the fire service.


Thankfully, The Paradoxical Commandments, which were written in 1968 by a 19-year-old Harvard student named Kent Keith, have given me, and will continue to give me guidance. Keith’s commandments were part of The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council, his first book for high school student leaders, which can be carried over to everyone in every profession.


I laid down the Paradoxical Commandments as a challenge, Keith is quoted saying. The challenge is to always do what is right and good and true, even if others don’t appreciate it. You have to keep striving, no matter what, because if you don’t, many of the things that need to be done in our world will never get done.

Thank you, Dr. Keith, for your wisdom. It’s as true today as it ever was!