A Good Leader Is Neither A Lazy Bones Nor a Roadblock

In this, my latest discussion of the concept of leadership, I am going to attempt to reach out and touch you. But it is not my intention to do it in the fine old, classic touchy-feely way of the telephone commercials of my youth. It is my intention to do it in the attention-grabbing manner taught to me by my third grade teacher back in 1954.

As I recall, she had a long-handled blackboard pointer. When you committed some form of mistake, she called you to the fore and gave you a whack. I use this example to show my parochial school buddies that "the educational smack" was something that was also used outside of the tightly knit sectarian world of the parochial institution. It might also give you pause to wonder why I would remember it so well, after so many years. I leave that to your imagination.

At this point, let me issue my warning. Bad leaders of the world, prepare to get a whack on the hands for the massive amount of pain and suffering you are causing the troops in your care. You are the people who live to fulfill your own desires. You are the people too lazy to say thank you now and again. You are the people too self-absorbed to care about those poor nameless, faceless souls who labor in the vineyards of your fire department.

I want you to know that I am not referring to those fine people who always put the concerns of their troops before their own. You have paid attention on your way through the ranks and have learned to love people. As you might remember, I talked with you in my last Command Post column about the critical need for honesty as an integral part of the psyche of our most effective leaders. No, I am headed in a distinctly different direction this time.

How many people do you know in positions of leadership who are nothing more than organizational roadblocks? Their sole function is to sit in the middle of the bureaucratic road of your fire department, stopping the flow of information and ideas.

They are also deathly scared of thinking, and of people who know how to think. Many times, they leave a good idea lying bloody on the side of the organizational road. Wake up, gang, and start creating the next generation of leaders.

However, there is a serious problem that cannot be ignored. It seems as though there is a growing gap between the people of my generation (age 48-58) and the newer members of the fire service. We, as a group, tend to look upon these younger whipper-snappers as interlopers in our well-ordered world. We think that they should do things like we do, "just because that's the way things are."

This creates a communications gap between people who use the same words in the presence of each other, with different meanings attached to the verbiage. Many think this is an insoluble problem. I do not see it that way. I think that this gap can be bridged quite easily by the simple mechanism of communications. But the parties have to be proactive. The organizational-roadblock type of person is just too lazy to do a good job. But I see my experience as something that I can share with you, for our mutual benefit.

It is my deep and abiding belief that my frequent assignments to the training division, throughout my career in the Newark, NJ, Fire Department, were a real blessing, although sometimes it was a real blessing in disguise. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, I had the privilege of meeting the next generation of the Newark Fire Department as they entered through the front door. I was most fortunate in being able to see the changing face of the fire department as it actually evolved. I tried to do two things:

  1. Share my love of the fire service with them.
  2. Learn about them as people.

This taught me a critical lesson. How you welcome people on board your ship is a critical part of how they will fit in as members of the Good Ship S.S. Fire Department in your community. If you are lazy and don't show an interest in people, you can ruin them right at the most impressionable stage in their career development.

A critical element of my modus operandi that always seemed to work well with the new troops was my conscious effort to reach out to them. I always approached each new class with a proactive attempt to share my love of knowledge and learning, as well as my love of the fire service with them. I really did not like those times when we were forced to treat the new people harshly. I never enjoyed feeling uncomfortable, and I worked not to make the troops feel uncomfortable.

However, I did work for a number of people who dearly loved to say the word "no" as often as they possibly could. They felt that things had gone along well for them during their career, and that there was no real need to change anything. These were the people who believed in Ivy Tower Management. This is a perverted style of leadership wherein any idea not dreamed up by the dwellers in the Ivy Tower of fire headquarters was forced to die a horrible and sometimes agonizing and public death. Further, many great ideas died on the vine, because someone in the front office was just a little too lazy to do anything about these potential changes. A phone call or a report was too much to ask of them.

It has been my personal experience that the number of unhappy firefighters in any department is directly proportional to the number of lazy chiefs in the organization. I have seen people lose vacations with their families after chiefs failed to submit requests for vacation changes because they were "too busy." Which is to say they were actually too selfish or slothful to take the time to take care of their troops.

I personally worried a great deal about my troops when I was a battalion or a division commander. My theory of servant leadership did not allow for me to serve anyone other than the people who worked with me. I can remember getting into a heated argument with a former president of the National Fire Protection Association over my view of the world. He said that I cared more about the people than the organization. And of course I argued back that without the work of dedicated, motivated people, you might as well not have an association. We ended up agreeing to disagree.

I learned early on that my success depended upon the labors of some really fine people, and that your folks can make you look really bad or really good. Make it hard for the troops, and they will make it real hard for you.

I have studied a number of books that have absolutely nothing to do with firefighting, but have everything to do with creating a successful firefighting team.

The first is The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli. This deals with the serious problems caused by people who attempt to play games with other people. I first read it in back in the 1960s as a freshman in college. I have returned to it over the years in an attempt to understand the political world around me. While the author is attempting to explain how kingdoms are controlled, I saw a great deal of the real world in his words.

Think about the fire chief who creates a team of insiders (sometimes called the A-team). All good ideas come from the insiders. All bad ideas come from the swine who are too stupid to be a part of the A-team. This is a sure way to split your department right down the middle. You will have a few people who love you and a lot of people who will hate you. These are the types of leaders who are a real roadblock to success.

Another text that I would encourage you to read is The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. The author of this classic shares lessons he learned during the battles of his ancient time. One of his quotations speaks to the concept of never making unnecessary enemies. It was his thought that you will make sufficient enemies as you go through life. He suggested that you didn't need to make any more than were absolutely necessary. But there are those people who live to anger everyone around them.

I want you to understand the deep and abiding impact that a leader can have upon every aspect of the lives of his or her people. Many of your decisions will be truly of a life or death nature.

You must understand that inaction or ignorance of their personal well being can be just as devastating to a member of your fire department as an actual negative act, action or activity. You are expected to lead when you are in a position of leadership. Get out in front of the troops, set the tone and set the pace. It can surely lead to great things.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, 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.