Command Post Leadership: Finding the Leader Within

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Where will the leaders of the future come from? Will a magic genie wave a wand over us and in the blink of an eye create a new generation of leaders? I think not, so I suggest that each of you must look inward and grow your leadership skills. You can do wonders, if you try.

How often have we looked outward for leadership in our lives? How often have we missed opportunities to achieve success because we waited for orders and directions from a leader?

During the past year, I spent serious reading time in the area of leadership style and development. Normally, my selections are from sources throughout America. Whether they are classic or modernistic, they are basically “America” thoughts. In the past year, however, a number of my readings were from researchers in other countries. It is interesting to see how our leadership thoughts examined from a completely different perspective. Much of what we consider to be the Holy Grail of leadership apparently does not play well in other parts of the world. It reminds me of a book that I read in the 1960s, The Ugly American, which taught that we are not perfect, but we work to force our ways on everyone else.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of one of the texts, In Search of Leaders by Hilarie Owens, came from her listing of what she calls her seven key essences of leadership. Some you may have seen or heard before, while others present a new view of the leadership world. They are as follows:

  • Leadership is distinctly different from management and is not just something to be added on to the job of a manager.
  • Everyone is born with some gift of leadership, be it great or small. It is part of the human spirit and should be expressed in the world.
  • Leadership is not a “fad.”
  • Leadership starts with the individual and requires a journey of becoming your true self.
  • Leadership requires us to understand and listen to what is emerging in the world.
  • Leadership is expressed by everyone when people are connected and part of the whole.
  • Leadership is about being followers as well as leaders.

I have always thought that leaders and managers were different kinds of people. Would you rather follow a combat infantryman or an accountant into battle? Would you rather attack a burning building fire with a fire vehicle mechanic or a trained engine company? These are simple, but easily understood examples.

Those people who have traveled toward the managerial world have usually become enamored of things. They are not worried about individual people; rather, they are hung up on dollars and things. To many managers, a person is a thing, just like a tire, an ax or a fire department pumper. Each has an expense and each is thought of in terms of cost.

Real leaders think of people as people. Each person who worked with me over the years had an intrinsic value. I worked to support and nurture each one of them. What I was to the organization, I was as a result of them and their labors. We were inextricably tied together. Many of my greatest conflicts in the fire service have been with bean counters. They urge us to do more with less, not understanding that they had not given us enough in the first place. I guess this is why I am so hung up on the manager-versus-leader analogy. I have seen the damage that such people can do.

As leaders, we are asked to empower our people. We want them to experience some form of buy-in with all that we are asking them to do. Owens speaks to this when she tells us that there is a little bit of the leader born into each of us. Have you ever been in a situation in which someone you know simply stepped up to the plate during a serious emergency and performed in a way that you might never have expected?

Why don’t we see this type of action more often? I would suggest that we do not see this because of the way in which our organizations are designed to beat people into line with rules, rather than empower them to transcend the rules and excel as individuals. It would seem that we have created operating guidelines for just about every aspect of our lives. While I realize the value of standard operating procedures (SOPs), I also worry that requiring our people to act in lock-step with rules can create people able to operate only when things are happening as they are supposed to, based on the SOPs. We need to place the necessary love for knowledge within the heads of our people that will let them tap into that potential they possess.

There is another problem: How can we lead others if we don’t know who we are and what we believe? Well over 30 years ago, Donald Favreau spoke to the fact that leaders have to come to grips with who they are and what they are able to do. During my many years in positions of leadership, I have always worked to accomplish three critical tasks:

  1. Become aware of who I am
  2. Learn what I can do well
  3. Come to know what I need to learn about those things I cannot do or do poorly

How can I expect to lead someone if I am unaware of who I am, what I expect from life and how I interact with people? For the better part of the past 40 years, I have struggled to perform in the convergent roles of follower and leader. I guess it was my study of Favreau’s Fire Service Management text that fired up my thinking on this topic. A number of us came to this same conclusion: How can we expect to lead others if we don’t know who we are and what we are all about? I would suggest that the same applies to each of you. Think of it as a journey toward better leadership. Work to become better than you were yesterday, knowing that you will never be perfect.

As you make your way through life, it is critical to pay attention to what is going one around you. How can you expect to improve if you are not willing to keep up with the events of the world around you? There are many things happening each week. Do you know what they are?

Read a newspaper every day. Far too many people do not even bother to keep up with the events of the world. Subscribe to several different fire service magazines, and pay attention to their websites too. That will help you keep abreast to trends as they develop. It is also critical to be a member of at least one national fire service organization. This will let you become part of the whole. You need to reach out to others in order to make the necessary connections to your career field. The same holds true in your organization. Become an active member, one upon whom other people can depend.

I would like you to remember one important fact. Knowledge does not automatically enter your head. The leadership skills you possess will not emerge magically. You need to cultivate yourself and all of your skills. The fact that you are reading this commentary is an excellent first step. Keep it up.

Lastly, each of us is a leader and a follower at the same time. There is no one on earth who lacks a superior. Even the President has to answer to us once every four years. Do not expect your troops to follow your orders if you do not follow orders yourself. This goes back to the simple practice of leading by example. If you take the time to grow yourself and the troops who work with you, great things can happen. Inside every one of us is a leader trying to get out. Do a good turn and help someone else. It will do wonders for you.

Harry Carter will present “Fire Department Staffing and Funding” at Firehouse Expo 2005, July 26-31 in Baltimore.


Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is a former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). Dr. Carter is an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. A fire commissioner for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through his website at Dr.Carter@HarryCarter.com.

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