Direction And Ability

This column is probably one which we should not have written. But sometimes you have to say what you think, just so you do not become ashamed of who you are and what you claim to do. So here goes.

One of our favorite old phrases goes something like this: The spirit is willing but the body is weak. In our case we have classically uttered these words when the topic of diets and weight control arose. However, they have a distinct meaning when it comes to the topic of running a fire department.

Our work in the fire service also makes similar demands on our administrative spirit. Running a fire department calls for a mechanism which allows us to move in a coordinated manner. Each of us must work as a team to deliver fire protection to the citizens of our community. And those who serve as the team captains must never forget who they represent, right on down to the lowliest water boy.

Many times during our travels, we have encountered fire departments where the spirit was truly willing. There are some really dedicated troops out there standing guard against danger in their communities. Their sacrifices are legend. However, the spiritual willingness to work and succeed is not always to be found at the highest organizational levels. The company officers and firefighters know what they have to do. But in many cases they are operating in an organizational vacuum. The people in the front office are too busy working at their own personal agenda.

It has come to pass in our great land that there is a growing organizational gap which we must face. It lies between the ability of our upper-level fire administrators to direct their people and the capability of those people to get the job done. And if you are among those working to get the job done, my finger is not about to point at you.

If we can be so bold as to put this problem in simple terms, our leaders have forgotten where they came from. They are so busy gathering chips at the political poker table that they have forgotten those people at the bottom of the totem pole. It is as though they never wore a blue shirt. It is like they never got dirty. It is like they never suffered in the heat or cold. Many times, fire chiefs acts as though they were born and bred to the position.

To check on this theory, I went to a true expert on the topic of birth. My wife worked for more than 20 years as a labor and delivery nurse at our local hospital. She assured me, when I asked, that she had never seen a single baby born with a gold badge or a white shirt.

So how did these people arrive in positions where they are required to direct the rest of us in doing our jobs? In many cases, they have gotten where they are by being superb test takers. They have amassed great bodies of theoretical knowledge, in the absence of large amounts of practical experience.

As they have moved up the ladder of success, they have moved closer to what they feel is their birthright. In fact, some of these people have been able to get to the pinnacle of their organization without ever serving as a chief in a suppression position. So you can see that their ability to lead would be limited to textbook examples.

It is our feeling that a person must have served time in the trenches to be a successful leader. In that way, when they arrive in positions of leadership, they can craft organizational visions which will be believable to the people poised to go over the top with a rifle and bayonet.

More importantly, the firefighters will know that the leader person has been there. They will trust that person to have their best interest at heart. They will repay the smallest kindness with dedication and hard work. Unfortunately, officers who care for their people often run afoul of their organizations.

We can remember countless instances of this type from our decades in the U.S. Air Force, the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve. Heaven help the poor company commander who stood up to the battalion commander, even when his people had been used and abused during some unnecessary, dumb, politically motivated, career-enhancing event.

We can remember a particular Vietnam War infantry officer. This guy had been there in the thick of things during the dark days of Tet in 1968. He had been shot at and hit, so he knew the real seriousness of war. He took care of his people and they truly loved him.

As a dispassionate observer (I was in Public Affairs at the time) I knew this poor guy was headed for a fall. And it came in a manner which I might have been able to script. His people were charged with accomplishing an unnecessary assignment, on a cold, dark night during annual training.

Like the real soldier he was, he motivated his men to do the job; and do it well they did. At the after-action meeting, he proceeded to let his feelings be known to one and all. BAM! He was sacked on the spot and replaced with the battalion commander's chosen butt-kisser. So much for hard work and sacrifice.

The lesson to me as a young soldier was keep to keep your head down and your mouth shut. Of course, those of you who really know me, know that this was a lesson I did not take to heart. However, I offer it to you as an illustration of what lies ahead if you choose to become a leader.

You will be forced to display the courage of your convictions. It is in this arena that many of our modern leaders have failed. And it is because of this failure to stand up for what we believe in, that many of our fire departments, both large and small, are in trouble. They are drifting about aimlessly. There are thousands of fine firefighters who possess the skills to move mountains. They have the talent and enthusiasm, and in many cases the training to do fabulous things. But without direction, they never achieve their true potential.

Our challenge to you is to let the genie out of the bottle. Set lofty goals for you troops. Train the living daylights out of them. And then turn them loose to surprise you.

Our newest generation contains some of the finest firefighters I have ever met. They have the interest and the dedication. We can train them to possess the ability for success. But what we really have to do is provide them with a solid direction in which to channel their energies.

I challenge all of you in leadership positions to develop a vision of where you want your department to be in five to ten years. Develop it by interacting with the troops. Craft it to fit your environment. And then sell it to whoever is going to pay for it. Learn to compromise when necessary, but only as a last resort. And above all, don't sell your soul for a white shirt and a gold badge.

The road to the future, like the road to hell, is paved with good intentions. Follow through on your intentions to have the best damned fire department. And then share this vision with your troops. And lastly, let them share in the praise.

My success comes from the people who work for me. I have often been heard to say that without my guys, I would just be one more big boob with a white leather helmet and a portable radio. Put your peoples abilities and sensibilities first. Good direction will then follow from that thought.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., will discuss "Solving Today's Fire Service Problems" at Firehouse Emergency Services Expo '98 in Baltimore July 16-19.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an acting deputy chief of the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and commander of the Training Division. He also is past chief of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company.