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Leadership in a World Gone Mad

Times are tough my friends. There is not a day which goes by when you and I fail to see the harsh realities of the current economic state of our nation. Fire departments are being asked to come up with budget cuts which are devastating in the depth and range of their impact upon our fire service. We are seeing it here in New Jersey.

A number of fire departments are preparing to lay off members. Others have already cut their force. It is my fear that we are entering a period where human life is on the verge of losing its value. It is more about bucks than bodies. Frankly, I am not sure what to tell you. People at the local government level are battling each other for a diminishing piece of the budgetary pie.

Thanks to our new governor here in the Garden State, municipalities across the entire state have seen their financial aid packages slashed so that the state can balance its budget. There are municipalities which are looking at large-scale staff cuts. There are school districts that are about to be forced into laying off score of teachers. Given the unemployment levels in our society, it is practically impossible for us in the fire service to generate any sort of support for the public sector.

People like me who have faithfully paid their pension contributions for decades are being called crooks for stealing our pensions from the public. We here in New Jersey are merely one piece of a very serious fiscal puzzle. I would suggest that the problems are worse in other places. Like you I have been following Billy Goldfeder's work covering the rash of layoffs around our nation.

My friends, the current climate of fiscal chaos calls for a new type of leader. We need people who can make a solid case using solid statistics, supplemented by equal measures of logic and reason. They need to be able to develop a budgetary approach which includes a great deal of honesty and pragmatism.

Believe me when I tell you that the last thing we really need is a type of leader whose sole approach to these financial issues is to blaze headlines throughout the media about how any cuts in the ranks of their firefighters are going to kill people. That scare business has never worked in the past. I have heard it time and again over the past two decades and it is normally viewed with distain by the public.

No my friends, what we need are leaders who can display a sincere willing to sit down with administration and layout a solid case for the needs of their department. We need people who understand money, communication, and bargaining. However, we also need people with guts and testicular fortitude. They need to be able to create a realistic picture of their needs and then be able to present plans which show in a reasonable fashion how cuts to their budgets will impact service delivery levels.

These leaders must have the guts to stand up to their local government and state unequivocally what they will be able to provide to the citizens at each level of funding. Do not say that people will die. Portray how the closure of s station will increase response times. Then show the impact of such increased times upon your ability to provide an effective service.

Over the past decade I have written a great deal about the concept of leadership. My research, as supplemented by my interactions with many of my e-mail correspondents over the years has created an increased awareness in me that gives me cause for concern. We have a lot of really serious problems and most of them stem in some way from a lack of effective leadership, or the presence of bad leadership.

Sad to say, many parts of the fire service have absolutely no idea about what the true nature of leadership real is. Worse yet, the bad leaders are cloning themselves by surrounding themselves with people that mirror, and parrot, their views. In difficult financial times the effective leader must avoid surrounding themselves with people who say yes to every idea the boss has and nod their heads like obedient little puppy dogs.

The person man who is truly worthy of being call a leader will never complain about the stupidity of his helpers, the ingratitude of mankind nor the in appreciation of the public.

If you are going to be the boss you need to stand up to the world and take full responsibility for the actions of your team. Of course this will be a lot easy on the leader if they have taken the precaution of picking the right people to assist them.

All of this is part of the game of life. Problems will pop up every day. A well-prepared and stand-up leader will be able to meet these problems head on and then be able to overcome them and not to go down before them in disgust, discouragement, or defeat.

Leaders need to empower their subordinates to perform research on the whole range of ways in which service can be delivered to the public. As you might imagine, I do a great deal of reading in any given week. I am also blessed with a number of frequent correspondents. I truly enjoy the give and take of ideas that flows back and forth on the Internet.

It is my fervent belief that each of us must work to the fullest extent of our own potential. It is critical for us all to accept the responsibility for our actions, whether the result is positive or negative. The apportionment of blame is a worthless waste of our valuable time and energy. I have long considered persons in positions of leadership to be servants of those entrusted to their care. That is how I attempted to live my life anyway. There were successes and there were some striking failures. But there was always a caring and concern for the people entrusted to my care.

Unfortunately, I have seen far too many people whose sole reason for becoming leaders was to feather their own individual nests. This behavior begins to create an aura of organizational selfishness. It can lead to people only doing what they are required to do. In the current economic state, people like this will kill their organization. Who wants to follow a leader who will throw people under the bus to keep what they have?

It has been my experience that too many people seek to place the blame for their failures on other people. They fail to recognize their shortcomings and, instead, lash out at those around them. Unfortunately, I have even heard those words spring forth from my own lips. The reason for this is quite simple. Placing blame on someone else is much easier than owning up to your own shortcomings. I wish to assure you that I haven't done this in quite sometime.

I discovered a long time ago that one good way to stay out ahead of the learning curve is to read a great deal. Do not limit yourself to just technical or just behavioral literature. Search far and wide for new approaches to old problems. The answer to your fire service problem may be in Popular Mechanic, Harper's Bazaar, or Time magazine. You never know where inspiring thoughts will spring from.

Having a fairly extensive personal library that includes magazines dating back to the 1920's, has allowed me to develop a fairly unique perspective. Can you imagine how many of today's problems mirror things that went wrong in the 1930's? More than you might think. On a recent journey to my own library, I went to the far end of the bookshelf and pulled a couple of classics which I have used many times in the past


The first book was entitled The Leadership Lessons of Jesus, and the second was More Leadership Lessons of Jesus. As is my way, I will leave no stone unturned when it comes to my search for a better way of doing leadership training and writing. I was also familiar with Mr. Briner's work, having read The Management Methods of Jesus, at the urging of my Pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, in Freehold, New Jersey, way back in 1997 when I was working in the Training Division in the Newark Fire Department. It helped me through a number of particularly tough times in my life in the city.

I always use these sorts of sources with a certain amount of care, as there appears to be a growing school of thought within the fire service that tells us that we are in control of our own destiny. There are people out there who will tell you that if you are tough enough, self-sufficient enough, and brave enough, you can do anything. I look at this in a different light. It is my belief that there is more help available to us than any of us can imagine. Given the problems we are facing in 2010, I would suggest to all that a little bit of prayer and belief in a high power could not hurt any of us.

Let me return to a quotation that I have used a number of times in my writing and speaking career. It expresses my views on the interrelationships that lie between us all. These words come from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, written by John Donne (1572-1631) in 1624. They read as follows:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

My interpretation of this is quite simple. We are all dependent, one upon the other for each aspect of what we do. Does it not seem like Mr. Donne was making the case for cooperation on the grand scale? I have used this concept of cooperative thinking as the basis for a great deal of what I do in the many aspects of my life. Whether in my service to the organizations on behalf of whom I labor, or in the way that I believe organizations should operate, I look to cooperation as the cornerstone of how we operate. My service as a band member has taught me a great deal about the need to blend in for the good of the organization. A band is the sum of the talents of the many, blended according to the will of the leader.

Those of you who know me personally are well aware of the fact that I do not shy away from controversial positions. The world of firefighting seems to prize the rugged individual who walks through flames to get the job done. We teach teamwork, but heap heavy praise upon the singular hero. These are the people who sincerely believe that the toughest firefighter deserves to become the fire chief. And as we are told, tough guys are the servants of no one. Every knee shall bow at the mention of their names.

In this world of toughness, my style of concerned and caring leadership takes a hit from the tough guys. Tough guy leaders are not servants of anyone or anything. They yell orders and make people do things. And if something goes wrong, it is because the people following the tough guy leader just don't know how to follow his or her brilliant orders. I worked for people like this, and they were the genesis of my search for a better way of doing things.

Battling for reasonable support is an extremely tough and demanding task. I wrote about the problems we are experiencing in society with people who scream, yell, and demand that their way be the only way. I am strongly suggesting here that the best leader for our current times is not necessarily the toughest one. Perhaps it is time for the return of the gentle leader to our world.

I am not suggesting a namby-pamby person who will roll over at the slightest scary words from the boss. Not, what I am suggesting is the sort of leader who is calm, quiet, and resolute in the interactions with others. These are the people who will succeed because they choose to arm themselves with three important commodities:

  • Facts
  • Figures
  • Friends

They know what the true facts of any situation are. They have taken the time to arm themselves with the correct figures to support their case. And they have spend a great deal of time building up a solid network of supporters in the community who trust and defend their actions to the powers that be. The do not rant and they do not rave. The work like attorneys to build a solid case for their client: the fire department.

Criticism of my methods has not stopped me. Occasionally it has slowed me, but in fact such criticism normally makes work harder and better hone my arguments. I have been swimming up stream for a long time now. It serves to stimulate me for newer, bigger, and better ways of doing business. Think back to that old homily that says that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. That is one way of doing business that I admire. As I have written on many occasions, we need to build bridges rather than fortresses.

Many people feel that desire is the sole requirement for being a leader. "I want it, therefore I should get it" seems to be their motto. This is not how I see it. Even if you wish to become a leader for all of the wrong reasons, you need to gather a certain amount of knowledge into your being and psyche. If you just want the white helmet and the red car, there are a number of things that you need to know.

In this the 21st Century, many of the old methods need to give way to the new realities we are facing. Many times people forget to gather the requisite knowledge that they will need to do the job they have targeted. I believe there is a minimum of technical and human relation's knowledge that you need to gather and absorb.

You will also be required to share knowledge periodically. This means that you will need to know a bit about being an instructor. Those who do not bother to prepare for a position of leadership are at the root of most of our problems. These shallow sorts of leaders have no concept of their responsibility to train, prepare, and take care of the troops. They gather an inner circle of associates who mirror their views and proceed to run roughshod over people whom they consider unworthy of associating with them and their stalwarts. When things go wrong, as they so often do, the first words out of their mouths are along the lines of, "...what's the matter, can't you people follow orders?"

Sadly, leaders like this fail to consider that the orders the hurl about may have been incorrect, or inappropriate. They fail to recognize that their lack of technical expertise was the root cause of issuing an order that was incorrect to start with, and stood no chance of success. No, they firmly believe that it is the fault of the dummies that they are forced to work with that cannot do what they are told. Rather than light a single candle, they choose to curse the darkness of their selfish little world.

Can you see what I am saying though? The old ways of doing business are not going to work in the midst of the new realities we face. In the final analysis, the modern leader may well reach a point where the face their governing body and state grimly that they can do x number of things with x number of dollars. They must gird their loins for the battle and be aware that honesty is not always a comfortable place when it comes to taking responsibility within the public sector.

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