Planning Your Career: A Guide for the New Leader

How many times have you heard the old axiom of management stating that in order to succeed, people must plan their work and then work their plan? If you are like me, you have had this thought drummed into your head over the years. Unfortunately, many...


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How many times have you heard the old axiom of management stating that in order to succeed, people must plan their work and then work their plan? If you are like me, you have had this thought drummed into your head over the years. Unfortunately, many people just hear the words and fail to understand their meaning. A failure on your part to plan your career will earn you a trip to the world of career collapse.

Each person has the potential to become a leader. It sometimes is a matter of fate as to who becomes a great leader, but each of us has the potential to achieve great things. Of course, this presumes that we intend to try. Hilarie Owen speaks to this fact early on in her 2000 text, In Search of Leaders, when she shares a thought from John Gardner, who wrote, "The reservoir of unused human talent and energy is vast." To that, Owen adds, "Among the untapped capabilities are leadership gifts" and goes on to state in a most straightforward manner that, "The premise of In Search of Leaders is that the only crisis in leadership is one of perception and understanding."

I agree with the basic premise of this text. Throughout the past 30 years, I have championed the cause of leadership in the fire service. My research and experience indicate that many of the greatest organizational failures in the fire service have been caused by the inability of people who are placed in leadership roles to actually lead their organizations or the sub-groups with which they have been entrusted.

Leadership has played an important part of my working life. For 22 of my 26 years in the Newark, NJ, Fire Department, I was privileged to serve in positions of leadership. My responsibilities ranged from command of four firefighters at the company level to 140 people during those times when I was a city-wide shift incident commander. In addition, it was my privilege to command both line and staff units. I observed many more senior leaders and built my style of leadership from a combination of experience, education, training and observation of others in action. Those styles that seemed to work were copied and those that seemed to fail were discarded or avoided.

Over the course of my career, I came to see my personal style of leadership as being a combination of three styles:

  1. Situational
  2. Servant
  3. Spiritual

In 1995, Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard created a body of work at the United States Military Academy that explains their approach to what they term "Situational Leadership"®: "Situational Leadership is an attempt to demonstrate the appropriate relationship between the leader's behavior and a particular aspect of the situation -- the readiness level of the followers." They suggest that a leader's success depends upon the ability to understand and read the readiness of his or her followers in any given situation.

Hersey and Blanchard go on to define the style more tightly. "In Situational Leadership readiness is defined as the ability and willingness of followers to perform a particular task." An important part of their theory deals with the ability and willingness of the follower to perform those particular tasks. It is not enough that the leader knows how to deal with people under this style of leadership. The leader must also ensure that the followers are trained and willing to do the task in question.

It would appear that the Situational Leadership style would require a great deal of day-to-day interaction between leader and follower to ensure that they are ready when the time comes to act. The importance of this is stressed by Donald Favreau in Fire Service Management (1973), when he states, "Keep your men informed... (and) train your men as a team."

As a member of the fire service, teamwork has served me well as a critical aspect of the operational mix. However, experience indicates that in addition to the situational demands of firefighting, a strong focus on the people doing the task is critical to operation success. Before I knew that there was such a style of leadership, I specialized in taking care of my people.

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