Goal Setting: Take The Longer View

As the new millennium moves ever closer, let us pause to discuss a fact of organizational life: It is critical for the effective fire service leader to chart a clear path into the future. The days of the old "we've always done it that way" philosophy are numbered. We must decide where we need to be going and set a course for that destination. So it is that we devote a few words to setting and achieving goals.

Like most parents, my wife and I worry about our children. Have we done all that we can to prepare them for the future? Are they really aware of how hard they'll have to work to succeed? We often wonder about their goals for the future and their ability to stay the course in pursuit of them.

Every once in a while, parents are privileged to enjoy the success of their children. When the success results from hard work and determination, the joy is exponentially grander, for it serves as a reminder that they can work hard in pursuit of a goal. So it was recently with our first-born child.

Ellen is a junior in high school. For years, she has enjoyed singing. As a small child, she was a member of the Junior Choir at our church. When she entered high school in 1994, she immediately gravitated to the world of music and drama. She originally had a career as a Broadway entertainer as a major goal. However, one of her intermediate goals was to secure a position in the All-Shore Chorus. I can remember how hard she tried that first year. However, it was not to be. She missed the mark by more than a few points.

After the requisite tears, she turned her attention to getting better. She sang at every possible opportunity in any available school venue. Mom and Dad even paid for lessons. After all, we wanted to support Ellen in her quest for singing success.

In her sophomore year, tensions began to rise as the appointed date drew near. She worked hard on what she perceived to be her weak points. She took support from her friends, and returned it in equal measure, for they were on the same musical team. However, once again, the results were negative. But this time she had just barely missed the brass ring.

Under the guidance of her choir director, Ellen worked even harder to identify the musical areas which needed improvement. Between them they identified Ellen's major stumbling block as the memory work area of the competition. (Let me explain this for those of you who do not know what it is: The student is required to listen to a piece of music, then sing the piece just heard, working to come as close to the recording as possible.

As the months passed, I could hear Ellen singing in her room. She would be playing music, then singing the melody. If we traveled somewhere in the auto, she would have her headset on and be singing along to something. This went on day after day, for months. She even developed the ability to sing and do homework. (This is the part that I questioned just a bit.)

The big day arrived once again. While my wife and I downplayed the event, you could feel the anticipation in the air around Ellen. How many times can the adage that work and virtue are their own reward be told to a child who really wants something? So it was with a great deal of trepidation that we sent her on her way.

Upon her return, we were greeted by a very strange attitude. It was a mix of "what's the big deal" and "I'm glad that's over." My wife and I did not know what to make of it. I guess it was just her way of getting ready for rejection, a "just in case I've failed" attitude. However, the next day, the phone rang. As I answered the call, I was treated to a totally different message. Coming from the phone was Ellen's voice screaming, "I made it, call Mom and tell her I made it."

As my wife and I shared our joy via telephone, I resolved to share this story with you, for there is a distinct message: The very fact that you set goals and work hard does not guarantee success. You need to dig in, work hard and not give up. Whether it is in the realm of firefighting or fire administration, this is tremendous advice. How many of you have been mugged on your way to the goal of a better fire department by the thief of the budget cutter?

Let me tell you about a fire department that received a whole new fleet of chief's vehicles. Unfortunately, the fleet arrived without red lights and sirens, and there was no money for them. But to the civilian in charge of the shop, there was a simple solution assign the vehicles to the fleet and tell the chiefs to drive carefully. Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed in the fire department, and this idea was dismissed. However, the new vehicles sat in the motor pool for six months until a new budget was passed.

In this case, the dual goals were operational safety and efficiency. And they were sacrificed upon the altar of fiscal imprudence. Nevertheless, the fire department persevered and eventually used the newer, safer vehicles.

The moral of this little tale is quite simple. Sometimes you have to work real hard and wait a long time to get what you want in this life. As fire people, we are used to a lightning-fast response and instantaneous results. That usually works on the fire ground but it almost never happens in the balance of life.

So set your goals, formulate your plans and set sail for the future. But be aware that strong winds are ready to blow you off course. And as I sit in the audience at the All-Shore Chorus concert this spring, I will be thinking just that thought as I struggle to pick out Ellen's voice from the throng.

In our next column, we will resume our discussion of determining fire risk in your community.

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.