Where are the Leaders?

Many times the topics for these periodic visits with you come from friends and associates who approach me with questions, or who ask for advice. I would like to thank Ernie Rojahn from the Great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for asking me to help him answer a question that has apparently been troubling him for some time now. Ernie is the editor of the Pennsylvania Fireman magazine.

It was at the 108th Annual Convention of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman's Association (CVVFA) in Newark, DE, back in July that Ernie waylaid me on my way to the coffee pot at the back of the meeting room at the Aetna Hose, Hook, and Ladder Company Station 8. Let me paraphrase what he asked me. There were two questions which I believe are tied closely together. Where have all the leaders gone and why do we see so many self-serving people these days in positions of great responsibility?

As I see it, these are both critical problems in our fire service today. I agree with Ernie and have devoted a couple of weeks to pondering this leadership issue. Of course it doesn't hurt that I am facilitating a doctoral course in leadership at Cappella University for the summer quarter. So you see, I devote a great deal of time to thinking about leadership these days. I believe that I have been able to come to a couple of conclusions about what is right and what is wrong with the issue of leadership. They may be what Ernie is looking for. At least I hope they are suitable explanations for my buddy from Central Pennsylvania.

I am honored that people such as Ernie come to me asking for my assistance and my opinion. It seems to me that this indicates a certain level of trust between my associates and me. Some of these folks actually have accused me of having common sense. Think about that my friends: Harry Carter and common sense. No way. Say it ain't so. This is a difficult concept for many folks to believe in. You bet.

For those of you who have known me for a long time, using the words "Harry Carter" and "common sense" in the same sentence may seem a bit strange. I know I can act really goofy sometimes, but I am trying to get better. At least I think I am. Actually it is my good fortune to have a number of close friends whose responsibility it is to keep an eye on me when I start to say and do stupid things. As you might imagine, I keep these fine folks busy.

Let me tell you my friends that when I share these "common sense" messages with my charming wife, Jackie, I get the same response. She pauses for a moment, looks at me, and rolls her eyes. A smile then comes over her face and she laughs bit. She gets a kick out of comments like this. She can read me like the proverbial book. Let me share a little bit about my wife with you.

The former Jackie Miller is an eminently patient person. She has known me since we first dated in high school back in the 1960's. She was my high school sweetheart. So as you might imagine, she has seen my act more than once (that includes all of the stories and most of the jokes). Nonetheless, she has not left and still supports the work that I do. Heck, she is all for me going on another road trip next June. Hmm, I wonder. Oh well, support is support.

I love her dearly. Perhaps it is because of the manner in which she has guided me out of the darkness often associated with being a single man in our society. Perhaps it because of her support of my work over the decades. Maybe it is because she never let me settle for things when she knew there was a better way of doing things. And it might just be that way because it is completely impossible to BS the charming Mrs. Carter.

Think about it. My wife has made a career of rounding off the rough edges which I brought to our relationship. Let me be completely honest. I brought very few social graces to the table when I got married. These were taught to me one fact at a time over a period of 37 years. Jackie Carter may well be among the most patient women in the history of the world. She modeled these behaviors and it was my good fortune to be able to learn them over time.

It is my guess that we have three really great kids because of the strong, positive behaviors modeled by my wife. It is possible that I had an influence. However, I spent a great deal of time away from the home. Between working at the fire station, attending drill training sessions with the New Jersey Army National, traveling, and teaching, I was away a great deal. It was Mrs. Carter who kept the home fires burning (pun intended).

Jackie and I took great pains to see that our children made it to church each week. We went to all of the school assemblies, participated in the organizations, and met with their teachers. Let me stress to you that we did not always take the kids part and we did not always take the teachers part.

We sought to find a common ground, defending our children when needed, attacking on their behalf as needed, and by being supportive of their efforts at all times. I strongly believe that it was our participation in the lives of our children which is at the heart of our seeming success as parents. You might well ask me why I am writing about my wife and how we raised our children. The reason is really simple.

It is my belief that Jackie and I succeeded because we worked hard to model those behaviors which we wanted to see adopted by our children. Whether consciously or subconsciously, this is what we did. Perhaps it was not as straightforward as I make it seem. Maybe we just lived a life in a certain manner and the kids saw and absorbed what we were doing. But I think it worked. This is the prescription which I am offering to cure our leadership woes in the fire service. You and I need to make it our business to do the right thing here.

By now you are probably thinking that I have morphed into some sort of touchy-feely sissy boy. Sorry my friends, that is not how I see it. Let me assure you that I have never held myself up to be a tough guy. However, I have always tried to be a stand-up kind of guy. There is a difference. Tough guys often try to muscle their way through life. They tend to bully and buffalo people in order to get their way. The true stand-up guys I worked with in Newark were always resolute in their beliefs and supportive of their troops. I was most fortunate that they provided these lessons to my generation and to me.

I was taught by the people who served as my leaders how to be a leader. Perhaps their methods were good and perhaps their methods were bad. In sum it was all of these examples that served as a model for me to observe, evaluate, and either emulate or discard. I was blessed by an interaction with some really great leaders. Conversely I was challenged from time to time by some severely flawed role models.

The key here is my belief that we have poor leaders today because they were exposed to flawed models during their period of growth and maturation. I want to point the finger of guilt at two critical segments of our society: politicians and television. It is my intention to point an accusing finger at the television shows which are blanketing the airwaves with terrible examples of flawed human behavior. It is also my intention to point another fickle finger of fate at the people who are running our government - at all levels. How can we expect to create a new generation leaders with the examples available for our younger people to emulate? Coming from New Jersey, I have seen a wealth of bad examples.

As is my way, I reached out for advice and guidance on this particular issue of leadership and selfish behavior. Jack Peltier of Marlboro, MA, is one of my great personal friends and advisors. He and I have discussed the importance of leadership a great deal over the past few years.

Let me also stress that we have spoken about this matter over the past few weeks. Jack is my rock of common sense. He is the one to whom I turn when I need to bounce a new idea around. Jack suggested that I needed to watch television in order to begin solving this problem.

I assured him that I did indeed watch a great deal of television. Since he knows me so well he replied that my viewing fare was not what he meant. He told me that endless hours of watching the Turner Classic Movie channel and countless reruns of "That 70's Show" did not count.

He suggested that I need to watch such reality shows as "Survivor," "Dancing with the Stars," "America's Got Talent," and the like, to get a handle on contemporary society. I am always willing to make sacrifices in pursuit of knowledge, but Jack was sure pushing the envelope with this one. However, I asked my wife if I could look at a few of her reruns of these shows on her DVR.

First off, I was quickly bored to tears by the stupidity of the premises which lie behind these "hit" shows. However, after a bit of time, I think I began to see the things about which Jack was speaking. I saw raw and brazen examples of devious people using selfish personal motives to club other people into submission. The moral seemed to be that in every case, the end justified the means. This is pure Machiavelli.

Some of these self-important, self-involved boobs seemingly make their way on television by treating people like crap. While they may or may not really be like that in real life that is how they come across on screen. Their behavior is reinforced by throngs of cheering audience members.

The key to success on these shows seems to be the concept at beating others into submission and winning at all costs. I also saw a wide variety of poor interpersonal interactions. Whether it was Simon or the Donald, these rude and boorish people appeared to take great joy in reducing the people in their presence to whimpering, simpering basket cases.

As one who has devoted a great part of his life to researching and writing about leadership, I was shocked at the tactics used by these latter-day Hitler's and Napoleon's to get their way. If this is the lesson being put forward by prime time television, we are in trouble as a nation.

Let me go one step further here. Let me issue an indictment of the people who are running our government, from the local to the county, to the state and through the federal level. No one is innocent here. I see people wrapped around the wheel of ego. I see people whose sole function seems to be self-perpetuation in the world of wealth, privilege, and power. I have long used a number of very negative quotations to portray my feelings about career politicians:

  • How can you tell that a politician is lying? Their lips are moving.
  • A politician is someone who approaches every subject with an open mouth.
  • A politician always tells you what they think you want to hear, not what they really intend to do.

Perhaps your next question for me is quite simple indeed. Harry how is it that you could you become so cynical in only 62 short years of living life. The answer to that query is equally simple. I grew up in New Jersey and worked in our largest city for many, many years. I have seen how things work and am sincerely disturbed by all that I have witnessed over the last few decades.

The examples of flawed leadership are there for all to see. The wide-spread corruption, the selfish pursuit of power, and the naked abuse of the voter's will have all made themselves well-known. Heck we even have a law on the books now which states that it is illegal to do things which are not legal. That is true Jersey government in action.

In spite of growing up amidst this litany of negativity, it is my belief that I have managed to live a fairly honest and straight-forward life. In many ways, I attribute this good fortune to the influence of Mrs. Carter, and people like Jack Peltier, which I spoke of earlier in this piece. However, there is another influence which I feel needs to be amplified at this point.

There is the example which was provided to me by my Dad. In my youth, he too worked multiple jobs to pay the bills and keep the family together. Both he and mom insured that my brother and I were both in church and at Sunday school each week. He took the time to come to my football teams and track meets. He rode herd on me when it came to earning good grades in school. He even passed up an important National Guard assignment in order to be able to spend more time with my brother Bob and me.

Wait a minute. Did I just prove my own point? It sure seems that way to me. It is my belief that I grew to adulthood trying to be like my father? I learned this way of teaching from my father and then was able to pass it on to my kids. The same is true for Jackie. I think that I am on to something here. Of course I did not dream this up. Neither did I create it. However, if it works for raising children, it should work for creating better leaders.

Much has been written over the years about the need for mentorship programs. My research tells me that it is not just in the fire service my friends. It is something which applies to every aspect of society. It is basically a one-on-one process. You have to decide that you are going to do this. You will need to do a great deal of reading on how to become a better leader. You will then model those behaviors for those around you.

Unfortunately, far too many in the fire service think that they know it all. You have met these people. They wish to hear only the sound of those thoughts which they create and then allow to continuously echo throughout the cavernous canyons contained within their closed craniums. These are the people who preach open-door management but practiced closed-mind leadership. These are not the folks you want to clone into your future leaders.

I am afraid that discovering the possible causes for the problems of bad leaders and self-serving politicians is only the first step. You and I need to make it our business to begin work on creating the next generation of good leaders. I hope that I have helped Ernie Rojahn to understand this problem a little bit better.

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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. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a Firehouse.com blog To read Harry's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Harry by e-mail at drharrycarter@optonline.net.