WHAT IS AN OATH?
So, what is this oath, and why is it so important to the organizations that use it? What is its purpose? What should be in it? How
can it be used to restore faith in people and organizations to act
ethically? Merriam-Webster describes the oath as ( 1) a solemn usually formal calling on God or a god to witness to the truth of what
one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one
says, ( 2) a solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s
In 2002, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Keskel, USAF, wrote “The
Oath of Office: A Historical Guide to Moral Leadership” for the
Air and Space Power Journal, Winter 2002. In the article, Keskel
provided this brief history of the oath:
According to one reference work, an oath is “a solemn appeal to
God to witness the truth of a statement or the sincerity of a prom-
ise, coupled with an imprecation of divine judgment in the event
of falsehood or breach of obligation.” This definition is captured in
the Hippocratic oath, one of the world’s oldest and most famous:
“I swear ... according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this
Oath .... With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and
practice my Art .... While I continue to keep this Oath unviolated,
may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the art,
respected by all men, in all times! But should I trespass and violate
this Oath, may the reverse be my lot!” Several concepts in this oath
still resonate in the one taken by today’s military officer—a call to
a higher power, a statement to perform to the best of one’s ability,
a sense of honor, and an acknowledgment of the consequences of
failing to live up to one’s word.
In both Merriam-Webster and Keskel’s research, the oath is considered a “a solemn appeal to God,” an entity revered by many as
the Supreme Being, the ultimate force that we must all answer to.
That sets the framework for what level of reverence, respect, honor,
and trust an oath is given. It puts an oath at the highest level of
expectation and responsibility.
To many, there is no dishonor worse than breaking an oath, yet
we pay little attention to the words, meaning, and expectations
of an oath. In fact, many times the framework for the oath of an
organization is a canned, off-the-shelf document, with little relation to the organization using it and the person swearing to it. Keskel goes on to state, “ ... the oath represented more than a simple,
ceremonial formality; rather, it provides overarching guidance
and a standard of moral conduct, as opposed to dictating specific,
limited criteria.” He continues in the article to break down every
section of the oath of allegiance all sworn military personnel take,
providing a description to make it clear what the expectations
are of those who take the oath. How many fire and emergency
response organizations can say they pay that much attention to the
sworn oath of allegiance their personnel are taking?
CREATING AN OATH
Why does your organization still administer the oath? Is it just
I would hope it’s so crystal clear by now that a bat can see the
because it’s a time-honored tradition that makes everyone feel all
warm and fuzzy? Or is it to set a criterion for the ethical and moral
standards for the organization and it personnel? Have you decided
what values your oath will embody? What words represent your
organizational mission? What overall message you want your oath
to embed in your personnel? Crafting an oath shouldn’t be per-
formed in a vacuum; it should be a whole organization process.
importance of an oath and the significance of the message it mes-
sage imparts. The formula to making an oath work includes the
1. It must be relevant to your organization and the type of work
you do. The oath for the Rotary is not going to work well for a
fire department. While there are some likenesses, the organiza-
tions have different missions.
2. The oath needs to be written for your organization and your
organization alone—not a copy of the fire department from
the next town over.
3. It should be created by your people based on the mission and
values of your organization. It should be a consensus document
that provides a synopsis of that mission and those values.
4. The meaning and intent need to be clearly understood by
everyone in the organization.
5. As Keskel advises, an oath is “a solemn appeal to God to
witness the truth of a statement or the sincerity of a promise,
coupled with an imprecation of divine judgement in the event
of falsehood or breach of obligation.” The sincere and unyielding sanctity of the oath must be regularly reiterated. It needs to
be acknowledged every time before it is administered so those
about to take it understand the implications of failing to honor
I recommend the following steps for all who will be taking an
oath either for the first time or when promoted to a higher rank.
These steps will help ensure the people being sworn clearly understand the oath and its expectations and provide a guide to good
Brian Correia taking the oath as he became a career firefighter in October 2016.
(Photo by Susan Correia.)