Leaders Must Know Their Limitations

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It has been a distinct pleasure to write and lecture on the topic of leadership for many years now. In fact, this is the latest in a series of Command Post columns dating back to early 2000. I guess that it is time to ask a very serious question. What type of leader are you? Seems like a simple enough question. But really, it isn't easy at all.

For you see, I am not asking you to tell me whether you are good or bad. That is not a question that any of us can answer ourselves. How good or how bad we are (or perceive ourselves to be) is a question best left to others. No, I am looking in a different direction. I am going to ask you to assess your individual skills set, a most challenging assignment.

The genesis of this column came from a dear friend's assessment of my skills as a leader. Note that I say a dear friend, because only a real friend would be bold enough to share his innermost thoughts with you. In my case, we embarked on an assessment of my personal strengths and weaknesses. For those of you have never done this, it can be a very difficult thing.

My friend came to a very interesting conclusion. After our lengthy conversation on my leadership style and skill set, he informed me that, in his opinion, I was a classic example of an idea person. His statement on this topic intrigued me. In my mind's eye, I had always seen myself as a multifaceted leader, capable and ready to handle any aspect of a leader's role.

My friend suggested that my view of myself was true, as far as it went, but suggested that it was my ability to teach leadership that was multifaceted. I was definitely not a detail person. He then went on to cite enough depressing statistics to convince me of the strength of his position.

His assessment of my talents came from a number of directions. We had worked on a variety of projects. Our interactions had gone on for a great many years. And his ability to round off some of my rough edges was a critical element in my personal success. For these reasons, I put off the urge to argue, and instead listened to what he had to say.

My friend went on to describe an idea person as an individual who was able to think at the macro level. I suggested that a better way to describe an idea person might be to state that they are people who are able to see the big picture, lay out the plan and then articulate that plan to other people. We agreed that an idea person could also be described as a visionary capable of describing their vision in a way that others could easily understand.

Once we had reached an agreement on the concept of an idea person, I paused before asking the obvious question. I wanted to gather my thoughts before pushing on. My friend then said that it seemed like I was not in a hurry to discuss the nature of what being a detail person might be. He was right about that one.

A detail person specializes in doing the unglamorous job of insuring that all of the minor details involved in making your operation work are handled. A detail person keeps the records. A detail person issues the purchase orders and follows up on the vouchers. A detail person will chastise you when you overspend your line on the budget.

These are also the people that we frequently malign as being petty bureaucrats. We say this because their penchant for order and their insistence on following the rules seems to slow down our general drive toward the future. We insist that they bend to see things our way.

As many of you who follow my work in this column and the commentary on my website www.HarryCarter.com know, it has been my way to frequently rail against all of these bean-counting people in my commentaries. So much that seemed wrong over the years came from them, so I put all of them into the same bucket and sprayed cold literary water on them. I may have been wrong.

Now I don't want you to think that I am going soft on you. I will still complain bitterly about the most outlandish of these unthinking number crunchers, those who favor dollars over human life. These are the people to whom piles of beans hold a greater attraction and importance than the flesh and blood people in their organizations. But I want you to know that I now recognize the need for people who have order at the heart of their lives and souls. These are the people who can flesh in the reality of those plans envisioned and created by the idea people.

During the midst of this discussion, I recalled a number of important people in my life. These were the folks who worked with me to make things happen. Without the talent and dedication they displayed on a continuing basis, a great deal of the success I have enjoyed in my life and career would never, ever have happened. I will be more discerning in my future criticisms.

During the course of my preparation for this column, it was my pleasure to discover a new book that portrays the leadership style of the late British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. Written by a self-confessed academician, Dr. Steven Hayward of the Pacific Research Institute, this book is entitled Churchill on Leadership. It was one of the first quotations that Dr. Hayward used in the introduction that really caught my eye.

Churchill was quoted as stating that, "A man's Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action." This is really a very telling comment. He apparently was able to divide people he had met into people devoted to thought and people devoted to action.

His writings suggest that Sir Winston was a believer that both types of individuals were needed, but perhaps it was only the rare individual who could excel in both. He seems to portray a certain bias in favor of action, as this 1898 quotation indicates: "I pass with relief from the tossing sea of Cause and Theory to the firm ground of Result and Fact." This statement was penned on the occasion of his return from service in the Malakand Field Force, a military unit serving at a faraway outpost in the British Empire of that era.

I too am now firmly of the opinion that both are needed. As we forge ahead in the early 21st century, we must develop our organizational and leadership theories in such a way that all of our bases are covered. Many of the leadership problems that I have studied over the past several years may be directly attributable to the problems that come from having the square personnel peg jammed into the round organizational hole of position. I now believe this more firmly than ever before.

It is critical to stress at this point that the issue of idea person versus detail person is not an issue of good versus bad. Each style of people is an important entity in its own right. There can be good and bad of each, but I say this because an organization needs both types of people to succeed. And it would best to have good idea and good detail people on your team. Someone has to have the vision and ability to generate mission support. There must also be someone, or preferably a group of people, on hand to do the all of the nuts-and-bolts organizational work. The effective use of both types of people will allow the organization to be optimally effective.

The mistake that many leaders make is thinking that they can do everything themselves. They fail to make a thorough assessment of the capabilities possessed by each individual in their operational network. This causes them to make improper decisions with regard to the delegation of assignments. They give the idea person nuts-and-bolts tasks to perform. They then ask detail people to assume a visionary role. When their improper delegation fails, they say the heck with it all and assume all roles themselves. This can lead to organizational failure and individual burnout.

The reverse of this modus operandi is a style of leadership where the leaders do nothing themselves. They merely assume that someone is doing something about the organization's operational issues. There is usually some poor soul who has the entire load dumped on his or her shoulders. This person struggles valiantly, but never seems to be able to emerge from under the growing rubble pile of the day-to-day chaos. When things fail to meet the leaders' expectations, they get mad and blame other people.

Leaders like this are neither idea people nor detail people. They make no attempt to match the style of individuals to the necessary tasks at hand. They make no attempt to play a part in things. In short, they do nothing. Churchill's description of the British government, culled from his 1936 book While England Slept, seems to describe this type of leader quite aptly: "Decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent." In short, they stand for nothing. You couldn't pin them down with an industrial-strength nail gun.

I urge you to determine which type of leader you are. Do you revel in the details? Or do you seek to soar with the eagles and glimpse the future? Both are worthy goals, but you must make a firm commitment to be true to yourself. If you find yourself to be strong in the idea-person world, surround yourself with solid detail people. If you are a detail person, please work hard for your favorite idea person.

Do not make the mistake that you can do both jobs. The results will be mediocre at best. And do not be afraid to step aside if you perceive yourself to be the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Far too many people operate on ego alone, much to the detriment of their organization, themselves and their families.

The key to avoiding problems in this area of the leadership world lies in honestly evaluating yourself and your talents. Remember, an honest evaluation involves you and a couple of real close friends. Acquaintances and strangers will tell you want you want to hear, or what they think you will want to hear. Your real friends will tell you what you need to hear.

Once you know who you are and what you can do best, do it. In order to keep doing it, you must constantly and honestly evaluate your personal and organizational progress. Frequently utter the words made famous in New York City by former Mayor Ed Koch. He would always ask, "How am I doing?" Believe me, the crowds were not shy. Your true friends will not be shy either. Just be sure you listen.


Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is a former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). 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.

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