Once a year it is my privilege to get together with my dear friend Deacon Charles Barnhart of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Charlie serves as the chaplain for the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firefighter's Association (CVVFA) and over the course of the past 10 years he and I have spent a great deal of time sharing ideas as well as sharing our love for the Lord. Let me suggest that over time I have learned that Chaplain Charlie has a special way of stimulating my thought processes.
We spent a great deal of time at the CVVFA 110th Annual Meeting in McConnellsburg, PA catching up on life in general. I spoke of my daughter's wedding engagement and my son's ordination as a priest. Charlie shared the fact that his Bishop in the Lutheran Church granted him the ability to carry out all of the necessary services which a pastor is allowed to perform. We had a good time catching up on life in general and our church work in specific. He then asked me to pay close attention to his sermon during our annual memorial service which we hold to remember association members who have passed away during the past year. He thought I might find it interesting.
The first lesson, which was from the Book of Ecclesiastes, set the tone of the day for me. It covered the essence of life as we know it today. It was the verse which tells us that for everything there is a season. There is a time to be born and a time to die. Let me take it in a slightly different direction my friends. Let me suggest that there is a time to lead and a time to follow. There is a time to stay the same and a time to change. The key for you and me is to make sure we are doing the right thing at the right moment.
My friends, is it not possible that when we fail to note the changing seasons around us, that we begin to go in the wrong direction? I am not referring to the obvious changes like day to night, summer to fall, and fall to winter. No, I am referring to such things as the way in which people seemingly age and die and the way that new people come and older folks step aside. In addition I am referring to the societal changes which creep up on us each and every day. But there are certain rock solid precepts that we must always adhere to.
The famous hymn, "Amazing Grace" served as the foundation for Chaplain Charlies' message to us. It served as a solid foundation for his comments on grace, mercy, and peace. One of the major points of his presentation suggested that all of our success and good fortune in life came about as a result of the Lord's Grace. More importantly, he equated the concept of grace with love. He noted that each of us turns out to be what we are because of the Lord's love. How can a person go wrong if they meet life with the love of the Lord as a core value?
Sadly, my friends think of how many in the secular world scoff at you and me when we speak of our faith and our love for the Lord. The rules are really simple. My first priority is to live by the Golden Rule. I have often felt that if I was busy treating others as I would ask them to treat me, how could I be headed in the wrong direction. I have placed my faith in others many, many times, and rare has been the case when my faith was not met in like kind.
How often have I shared with you the message that you need to have the respect and support of your fellow travelers in your journey to be an effective leader? As one who has served in a variety of leader and follower positions, I feel comfortable in stating that one of the important things a leader must do is protect and defend their people from unnecessary and unwarranted criticism and interference.
Back in the day when I was serving as a chief officer in the Newark Fire Department, one of my critical personal goals was always to take care of my guys. Let me assure you that this was never an easy job. It seems as though I was working with and for people whose top-most goal in life was to avoid responsibility and assign blame to others. They never wanted to get any mud on their skirts. My job was to stand up for my guys and take whatever nonsense the front office would send our way.
If I felt that my guys needed a work of counseling, I would provide it to them. These sessions would always be conducted in private if conditions permitted. If I had to yell out to keep someone from being killed or injured, so be it. But I always found it best to conduct these counseling sessions in private. I did that to keep the individual from suffering any damage to their egos. The part that I really had to work at was being able to listen effectively to my guys.
As a student of the leadership field, I came to understand over time that the manner in which I shepherded my divisions and my battalions through life most closely aligned with the style which has come to be known as "servant" leadership. It dawned on me early on that I needed to create an environment within which my people had the greatest opportunity to succeed.
Throughout the decades of my career it has been my goal to keep my boss informed of what was happening within my area of responsibility. This too is what I asked of the people with whom I have worked. I can remember telling my troops that it was a lot easier to protect them if I knew just exactly what was going on.
Now I am fairly certain that neither I nor my troops has a perfect record in the "here is what is going on" arena. But we sure as heck shared the serious stuff. I can recall many times leaving the bosses' office feeling as though I were a sheared sheep. But I never transmitted the bosses' tirade to the troops. Oh, we arrived at agreements as to how improvements should occur, but these changes were put forward and discussed in a personal and respectful manner.
It is my opinion that I worked among some really great leaders in the Newark Fire Department. Many were the lessons learned from my elders was the importance of the concept of two-way loyalty and mutual respect. I got a great start in the leadership arena from people like Fire Chief Joe Redden, Deputy Chief Dave Kinnear, Deputy Chief John Griggs, Battalion Chief Rich Hettinger, and the late Battalion Chief Frank Reheis.
Each of these men allowed their subordinate leaders the latitude to do their job. When they needed to help they did. And when they needed to step back and let their people do their job, they did. You were allowed to grow under their tutelage. That is the manner in which I treated my people during all of my years. I showed my love to my people through the manner in which I allowed them to do their job. And my bosses returned the favor by supporting me and strengthening my position as an intermediate level supervisor. I returned the favor by keeping them informed as to where we were and where we were heading.
Recently I had an experience which has given me serious pause to ponder the basis for my manner of supporting and interacting with those for whom I labor. I made an obvious mistake in the doing of my job. Immediately after I made the mistake I knew it was a mistake. As is my way, I wanted to keep the boss out of trouble. In order to keep my boss aware of the potential for possible problems, I let that person know exactly what I had done and how I had initiated corrective measures. However, things want sadly wrong at that point. That person's response to my action was to report me to their boss and institute disciplinary actions against me. That person ran to his boss as fast as their knees could carry them. To say that I was shocked at this action is an understatement.
Throughout my career in the fire service and in the military, I have always operated in the self same way. I have always wanted to be a loyal subordinate and have always felt that keeping the boss in the loop was part of my method of operating. Let me assure you that this particular individual will hear precious little from me in the future. Of course I will work to do nothing stupid.
All correspondence from that person will receive a polite "yes" or a polite "no" response. I will do my work faithfully each and every day. I will not slack up in any way. I will not lie, cheat, nor steal. You know me too well for that. No, I will be sharing my thoughts and actions along with my words. It is my hope that we will all profit from my experience. However, I will let that person find their way through life without my assistance. I will not be nasty, but I will be resolutely non-committal. It might be suggest that that the pounding of salt might be a future operation in this particular environment.
Having done unto this person in a way that I would have liked to have been dealt with myself, I was eminently depressed to have been treated like dirt. Since one of my core operating models is to not act like a "dumbass," I have taken my medicine and am motoring down the road of life in pursuit of a safer and more efficient fire service. My love for the fire service will always trump my personal problems with the people I work with. I have worked to operate through this current period of malaise with grace in my heart and with love for the people that look to me for help and guidance.
As the final notes of "Amazing Grace" faded away my mind become resolute. A change has occurred in my life. I have witnessed the change and made my reaction to it a part of my modus operandi. I cannot control how others react to me. My only recourse is to control my response to things as they happen to me. That in itself is a critical reaction to a strongly negative action taken against me. I look to the Lord's Grace to keep me on the proper road.
I would like to thank Chaplain Charlie for sharing the Grace of the Lord with me. He cracked through my latest bout with writer's block. I really have not felt motivated to write since returning from my vacation back in July. However, it is our shared love for the Lord which has allowed me to take a situation where I really could have done something incredibly stupid and turn it into a personal learning experience. Thanks to my buddies at Firehouse.com, I am now sharing my thoughts with you.
HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his A View From my Front Porch blog. He recently several texts, including Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.