Are You One Of The Great Ones? Do You Want To Be?

As some of our close professional buddies might know, we have adopted a new hobby. We have finally taken our own advice and began devoting time to something which has absolutely nothing to do with the fire service. Our new calling comes from the world of music. You will now find us playing tuba for community bands.

Owing to the fact that we did not take up our horn until the age of 47, you might expect that this article is all about how an old dog happened to learned a new trick. Maybe we will do this in the future but not now. In this column, we are going to address lessons learned from the music world.

Like any novice, we read the literature of our new-found diversion. When you are starting in mid-life, you have to work hard to catch up to those people who have been playing an instrument since they were in grade school. We pored over the various lesson books that are essential to learning any subject. Countless hours were spent learning scales, keys and tunes. We then moved into the theory texts to learn about the construction of music and how it is delivered.

Our next study was in the history of the field. We learned about the people whose names appeared on our sheet music John Phillip Sousa, the "March King"; Arthur Pryor, the trombone soloist and band leader; and a number of classical composers. We came to understand more about how to play their music by a study of how they lived their lives.

One of the best autobiographies was by a man little known outside the music world, the late Mahew (Mike) Lake. Lake was a composer, arranger and musician. His story was different from many other self-portraits we have read. While you came to know a great deal about his life, Lake devoted even more space to defining the lives of truly great people he had worked with during his career. It would seem he wanted you to know the manner in which these people came to be great in their own right. He shared insider stories about Sousa, Pryor, Victor Herbert and George M. Cohan, as well as a number of less-famous folks within the world of stage, theater, movies and radio.

Not too long after we finished his book, we heard a sermon at church which spoke about this very same subject of greatness. While the subject of the sermon was Jesus, the applicability to the words of Mike Lake jumped out at me. These thoughts are as relevant today as they were in 1910 or in 30 A.D. Let us start with a question. What are the basic attributes which project greatness to the world at large? Truly great people would appear to possess at three primary attributes. These folks are:

  1. Talented.
  2. Down-to-earth.
  3. Approachable.

It is merely the degree to which each of these attributes appears that varies from person to person. But think about how important each of these traits is to a successful human interaction or endeavor.

A talented person is blessed with greater abilities regardless of the field of endeavor. Some people appear to be born with gifts and competencies far superior to those of their contemporaries. And the truly talented can spread their influence across a broad spectrum of groups. It is our contention this talent comes from a strong interest in people, life and learning. While it appears that certain of our abilities come from heredity, others must be nurtured. Stories of the child prodigy who could not cope with adulthood are legendary.

How many people voted most likely to succeed in the class of 1965 (the year of my entry in the working world) have ended up as burned-out druggies, bums and failures by 1997? And how many who were judged by their teachers and peers as average have gone on to reach the heights? It is the basic talents which reside within these people that have manifested themselves as they lived their lives.

We can recall a person we met in 1976 at the NFPA Fall Meeting in Cincinnati. A chance encounter with an up-and-coming assistant fire chief from out west, on an airport bus, led to a luncheon engagement. A discussion ensued about life in general and fire departments in particular. This fine man shared his views on strategy and tactics, as well as his hopes for an upcoming promotional exam. This guy was real friendly and down-to-earth, and went out of his way to make a young firefighter from Newark, NJ, comfortable. He appeared to possess all of those attributes which we now ascribe to a great person.

  • He was approachable.
  • He surely seemed to be a talented exponent of progress in the fire service.
  • And he was damned sure down-to-earth.

We became acquaintances that morning. And over the years, we have enjoyed a fine friendship with Chief Alan Brunacini of Phoenix.

So what have we said in this edition of Command Post? Some people attain true greatness. However, you will also find that these truly great people share what they know. They will encourage you to interact with them. They will fit in wherever they go. And they do not exude lofty airs of righteous self-importance. Not bad.

As my late father told me many years ago, "You will work with a number of people in your life who are average. They will be fine people in their own right and work hard for you. Just treat them like you'd want to be treated." Dad, you sure were right.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., will present "How Much Fire Department Is Enough?" at Firehouse Emergency Services Expo '97 in Baltimore July 24-27.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a battalion chief with the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and past chief of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company.