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Blessed are the Ignorant

You may well be wondering where I am headed with this piece of commentary. I have been meandering a bit to this point. Let me suggest that I am starting on a journey of knowledge and enlightenment. However, I believe that, in this instance, I find myself operating within an area of personal ignorance.

There, I have said it. I have opened this visit with you by admitting that I am ignorant. That is the first step one must take during the journey from ignorance to knowledge. For me to claim ignorance simply means that I believe myself to be unaware of, or not sure of something. For those of your who really know me, you know that I have been on a journey in pursuit of knowledge for a long time now, so in this case, ignorance does not equal stupidity. In addition, I have never claimed to know it all when it comes to the fire service or weight control.

It is my hope that you appreciate the title of this visit with you. For those of you who are conversant with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount from the Book of Matthew, the genesis of my title will make sense to you. Many know this section of the Bible as the Beatitudes. That section was the basis for the sermon which was delivered by Chris Van DeBunte, our Associate Pastor.

The title for this piece came to me while I was listening to him speak about the meek. You have probably heard the phrase, "...blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth." One part of Chris' discussion on the subject of meekness involved an acknowledgement by the meek person of their own personal ignorance. His words and my thoughts suddenly began to come together.

It is my belief that this all makes sense when you take ignorance as the starting point for the journey to a place of knowledge. To be ignorant is simply not to know something. Like many of my previous visits with you, this one has its beginnings on the way to church in Colts Neck, NJ. My wife and I had just picked up our friend Marge Wilson at her home on Howell Road. Marge worships with us at the Colts Neck Reformed Church and she travels with Jackie and me most Sundays.

On the way over to church we began discussing the dilemma facing the school systems here in the Garden State. Since our governor has declared war on public employees and their unions, this is a topic close to our hearts. I am a retired civil servant and my wife works as a school nurse.

Governor Chris Christie sees my wife and I (and people like us) as a real drain upon the citizens of New Jersey. He has gone so far as to declare us to be a bunch of selfish, money-grubbing pariahs, who do not give a hoot in hell about the people who are paying taxes to support our lavish life style. What a boob. But then again, he is a lawyer and a politician, so what should I expect.

In all my years as a firefighter, captain, and battalion chief in Newark, I never once saw a politician humping the line through the front door. They talked a great game as they cut our budget and supplied us with endless amounts of low-bid crap for equipment. However, we were the ones who carried the water every time our lifesaving services were needed.

What I do remember is paying into my pension account every two weeks. I did this because it was the law. The city and state have not been paying into the pension regularly for well over a decade. The law says that they should be paying, but because the politicians write the laws, I guess they are allowed to violate those same laws. Ah, but I digress.

Part of the discussion between Marge, Jackie, and me evolved around the fact that it was always the workers who were made to suffer. Teachers and paraprofessionals are set to be laid off. Lives are being disrupted, while at the same time people in administration at these self same boards of education are steaming along as though nothing were wrong.

Marge's grandson is part of the public worker's union in our township. He and his associates in the public work's department were all subjected to several weeks of furloughs last year so that the town could present a lower operating budget to its citizens. At the same time that his union was willing to pitch in to protect its members, other unions refused to budge one iota to pitch in for the public good.

What makes one class of citizen better than another? Why do some people think of themselves to be better than others? Why are people at the top of organizations always so willing to declare themselves to be so important as to exempt themselves from any effort to sacrifice anything for the common good?

The last bit of our discussion in the car came from me. I suggested that the people in charge of these administration board of education staffs should set the example by taking the same sorts of pay cuts which the state is exhorting the teachers to make. I suggested that the best way to lead any organization is to lead by example. My wife then looked at me and chuckled a bit. I guess she felt that leading by example was not something often encountered in the educational world where she has labored for almost 20 years.

She is allowed in this case. She has made a personal commitment to assist the Wall Township Board of Education cut their budget for the coming year. She has chosen to retire and stay home to keep me company. Given the manner in which she has been treated over the past few months, I am in total agreement with her decision to retire and move on with her life.

How has the board of education in Wall chosen to respond? Mrs. Carter's position is not being replaced. One of the nurses from a smaller school is being transferred to take her place. The board will then combine the functions of two smaller schools in order to allow them to use a single nurse to cover two buildings which are not located near each other.

They are going to gamble that nothing of a life-threatening manner will occur. Hmm, I wonder if they thought that one through? This is a very interesting development. Oh, and by the way, no layoffs are planned at the administrative level. As well all know the street runs only one way in certain upper-level parts of every community.

Leadership by example is an extremely effective tool for people within organizational setting to bring to bear on the problems inherent in running any entity. Quite simply, the leader models the behavior which they expect from their co-workers. If they want people to arrive at work on time, they arrive early and greet them upon their arrival.

In the event that they want their folks to work hard, they too will display a strong level of organizational commitment to the common good. These people in positions of leadership will make mistakes, the same as their fellow travelers. They will forgive their fellow travelers in the hope that this behavior will be modeled by all parties to the operational equation.

Above all, these people like this will not act like know-it-alls. People do not like people who think they are perfect. There was only one perfect person in history and look how he was treated by the authorities in his day. It is time to share some serious wisdom with you about leadership and ignorance.

As I stated earlier, I do not believe myself to be a know-it-all type of person. It has been my experience that the more I learn, the more I suddenly discover to be beyond my personal knowledge and data base. The more I learn, the more I seem to need to learn. I try to lead by example. I see that as the logical extension of the Golden Rule. I do unto others through the living of my example.

Know-it-all people are not quite the same. During his sermon, Reverend Van DeBunte made an extremely good point. He told us that you really cannot deal with know-it-all people. You cannot share knowledge, advice, or experience with a know-it-all type of person for one simple reason. They already know it all. Their minds have been frozen in time and then cast in concrete. In this way, people of this ilk morph from a state of ignorance to a state of stupidity. They don't know that they don't know and they refuse to listen to anything.

Blessed are the ignorant for they have the potential to learn. Blessed are the ignorant when they are willing to learn. A pox upon all of the stupid people. I say this because they have a habit of confounding so many of the good things which could happen in our fire departments.

Let me close with this bit of advice. If you understand what I am saying here in this commentary, then you are not the problem. If you think that I am talking about someone else, then you may be the problem. Please be careful of those people who believe themselves to be all-knowing and all-seeing beings. They have a habit of killing people and organizations. Stay awake. Stay aware. Stay alive.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a 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. He recently published 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