Leadership: Some Classic Thoughts

Over the past year or so, I have written a great deal about the concept of leadership. My research, as supplemented by interactions with many of my e-mail correspondents, has created an increased awareness 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 the true nature of leadership. Worse yet, the bad leaders are cloning themselves by surrounding themselves with people who mirror, and parrot, their views.

As you might imagine, I do a great deal of reading. I am also blessed with a number of frequent correspondents. I truly enjoy the give and take of ideas that flow back and forth on the Internet. A recent e-mail communication from Chief John Buckman of the German Township, IN, Fire Department gave me a great deal to ponder within the confines of my office.

Part of John's message was a quotation from William J.H. Boetcker regarding leadership. These words came from an e-mail motivational document, the Positive People Power newsletter. John is kind enough to share it with a number of us each week. The sentiment reads as follows:

"The man who is worthy of being 'a leader of men' will never complain about the stupidity of his helpers, the ingratitude of mankind nor the inappreciation of the public. They're all a part of the game of life. To meet them and overcome them and not to go down before them in disgust, discouragement or defeat - that is the final proof of power."

It would appear that Boetcker is alluding to the fact that we must each work to the fullest extent of our own potential. It would also appear that he is suggesting that it is critical for us 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 people 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 doing only what they are required to do.

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 some time.

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 Mechanics, Harper's Bazaar or Time magazines. You never know where inspiring thoughts will spring from.

Having a fairly extensive personal library that includes magazines dating back to the 1920s 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 1930s? More than you might think. One of my recent research forays came as a result of a recommendation from an associate in the Midwest. He suggested that I needed to look at two recent books published by Bob Briner and Dr. Ray Prichard.

The first book is The Leadership Lessons of Jesus and the second is 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 familiar with Briner's work, having read The Management Methods of Jesus, at the urging of my pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Freehold, NJ, back in 1997. It helped me through a particularly tough time in my life.

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.

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 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 on 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.

Criticism of my methods doesn't stop me at all. In fact, it motivates me to work harder and better hone my arguments. I have been swimming upstream for a long time. It serves to stimulate me for newer, bigger and better ways of doing business. Think back to that old homily, "You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar." That is one way of doing business that I admire.

Let us take a look at some of the gems of leadership wisdom that Briner and Prichard have shared with us. It is their contention that people are called to positions of leadership. That makes sense when you think about it. You have to make a conscious effort to move upward in any organization. Whether the act involves gathering a great deal of knowledge and passing a test or gathering a great deal of political support, an affirmative action must be taken. Unfortunately, the call is only one part of the complex interaction of factors required to become a leader.

Many people feel that desire is the sole requirement for being a leader. Their motto seems to be, "I want it, therefore I should get it." My corollary to this is quite simple. 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.

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 relations 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 they hurl about may be incorrect or inappropriate. They fail to recognize that their lack of technical expertise is the root cause of issuing an order that is incorrect to start with, and stands no chance of success. No, they firmly believe that it's the fault of the dummies with whom they are forced to work, because those people can't do what they are told. And these leaders can be counted on to turn on their inner circle when it comes down to a me-or-them choice. Loyalty is not a strong suit among selfish leaders.

Consider the difference between this sort of leadership group and one in which the leaders choose to surround themselves with people who will think and challenge their views. Yes men (and women) are a plague upon the earth, but truly challenging sidekicks are a blessing. And wise leaders select their associates and ask them personally to join with them. There are no messages between intermediaries. There is a face-to-face meeting when the leader specifically asks a person to join the team.

Another serious problem with selfish leaders is their inward focus. It is always, "me, me, me" or "us, us, us." People of this ilk usually expect the public to fall all over themselves with hosannas and hallelujahs just because the fire department has answered a car fire call in their driveway. They expect a municipal commendation for taking in an alarm malfunction.

These are the sort of people who see the fire department as the center of the universe, with all other activities falling in line behind them for praise and resources. These people have streets named after them: "ONE-WAY." These are also the same people who roll down the road at 3 A.M., sirens screaming and air horns blaring, to a garbage can fire, then wonder why the public complains about the noise.

These are the same people who do nothing in the public education arena, then wonder why no one shows up at their biweekly bingo game. They hide behind the closed doors of their fire station and grumble about how the public doesn't support their budget. Rather than light a single candle, they choose to curse the darkness of their selfish little world.

I was recently encouraged by a younger firefighter of my acquaintance. He made a comment to me about some problems he saw in his fire department. He was upset by the damage that cliques seemed to be causing. He had a number of concerns about the fact that certain families seemed to wield an undue amount of power. He then asked if he could borrow a number of books from my library. He wanted to see if he could make any sense of what was happening. Needless to say, I was glad to share my views and my books. Maybe he will be the one to make a difference in a few years.

Can you see what I am saying though? Doesn't it all seem to go right back to the quotation at the beginning of this article? Don't complain about how unfair life is, go out and make a difference. Heaven knows, I'll keep trying.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is also an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark 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). He may be contacted through his website at Dr.Carter@HarryCarter.com.