The Great Leader Has A Vision

How many of you have worked for an organization mired in the depths of the past? How many of you have worked for a fire department without a clue as to what its future might look like? Sad to say, the answer in far too many cases is yes to one or both of the preceding queries.

Far too many fire departments stumble through their organizational lives without ever achieving any great focus or success. Their leaders seem content to make every tomorrow a rote-learning version of the yesterday that immediately preceded it. Quite simply, they lack any sense of the concept of vision. They state for all to hear that if the past was good enough for their fathers, it is good enough for them. Balderdash, I say.

It has been my personal observation that one of the primary attributes possessed by an effective leader is the ability to craft a vision of the direction in which they wish their organization to go. As a veteran of the trench warfare mentality of a large metropolitan fire department, I am intimately aware of the dangers that a rudderless ship of state faces.

My memory tells me that every aspect of our organization was continually in the panic-button mode, on practically a daily basis. Long-range planning seemed to be a decision on where to hold lunch. It was in this dearth of vision that I developed my deep and abiding faith in the need for a vision to shape the direction of any organization. Let me reach way back in time for an excellent example.

One of the great Biblical stories I have read is the one about Paul. We remember him as a great person in the history of the Christian faith. But this seems quite odd if you look back into his personal history. He was a man who did not like Christians. His teachings and life experience taught him to seek them out and persecute them. But there was more in store for him than he could ever imagine. It appears that the Almighty had a different view of things. It would appear that there was a vision for the future that had an entirely different vision of where Paul might fit in.

My research indicates that Paul was a man of tremendous intellect. He was extremely zealous in his approach to the faith of his fathers. Perhaps it was this drive and dedication that made him an attractive candidate for conversion, in spite of his strong stand against the Christians.

One day, as he was headed off to Jerusalem to persecute a few hundred of the faithful, he was suddenly struck blind by a great light on the road to his destination. Many of us can understand the strain of a man on the road with many things to do and many places to visit. That is how many of us live our lives today.

Here again was a man who had lived the life of a fervent believer on behalf of his cause. He was literally a man of deep convictions, with the ability to create a vision and gather followers around that cause. While many would argue over the rightness of his cause, few would quibble over his talents and abilities. And suddenly he was blind. He was a man who had to be led around. How many of us have felt like that?

I would tell you that the important thing to note in this story is the outcome of that "blinding light." He experienced a complete change in his beliefs, his perspective and his life. He became a leading teacher and proponent of his newly adopted faith. And his ability to create a vision for the early church was critical in its growth. What had been a force for one view of life on earth became a strong abiding force for another sort of direction. Paul's ability to create a vision and lead people toward it, and to teach them about it, became the central focus in his life.

Let us return once again to the world of the here and now. Let me share my vision for the impact of this article. According to Mr. Webster's famous book, vision is defined as, "…an act of seeing…a fanciful view." In his classic text, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey speaks of this ability to create a vision as being an exercise of our personal self-awareness. He states that, "…we have imagination, the ability to create in our minds beyond our present reality…and we have independent will - an ability to act based on our self awareness."

These are the critical elements in the arena of vision for the future. But I personally believe that there is one more intangible that allows an effective leader to vault over his or her peers to even higher levels of success. That is the intangible of personal magnetism. This is the concept of charisma that allows one person to deeply affect and strongly influence other human beings.

There is no school for charisma. So how then do you learn about motivating people, because motivated people are the essence of your support mechanism in defining a vision? The simple answer would be to read widely on the concept of motivation. There are countless texts available at any library. Many how-to-motivate books are available in bookstores everywhere. But all of the reading in the world will only allow you to set sail on the sea of leadership.

You must seek mentors in the world. They can be living or dead. What is important is their impact on the world, and your ability to study their style and apply it to your own personal experience. There are numerous examples of great leaders. Some, such as Plato, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were forces for good. Others, such as Adolf Hitler and Napoleon, were forces for evil.

I look at the concept of a vision as being much like the destination of a journey. It is the place you wish to see your organization reach, at some time in the future. Let us look at this in some real basic terms. Would you start out on a journey without having a destination in mind? It is critical for you to determine what you wish to see happen in the future. This holds true for you as well as for your organization. You really cannot separate the two.

We belong to organizations for a variety of reasons. Many times, we seek out people who think or believe as we do. This would explain why some people belong to Masonic lodges and others to the Knights of Columbus. Or it can explain why some people are Lutherans and others are Baptists. We seek to be with people with whom we can share feelings, emotions and visions.

At other times, we associate with people who enjoy doing the same things we do. This is how I view my participation in the many bands with which I am associated. We all enjoy making music. And although some play trumpets or trombones, while others love flutes, drums or clarinets, we all hold a central focus. We look for the joy that comes from a shared moment when each instrument plays the proper notes, in the correct way, at the right time.

There is something spiritual that seems to take over during a performance when each musician is truly on the same sheet of music. Our vision is excellence, and our individual goals are to be the best we can be on our individual instruments. It is the director's task to see that our vision and our goals are brought together. When all play their part, the results can be truly inspiring. But the vision of an excellent performance must be shared. Or the director will have precious little to work with.

The same holds true for my decades'-long association with the fire service. I derive great strength and pleasure from being with people who share my love of the fire service. And it is the hard work of each individual member that brings success to any organization, as a whole.

A great clue as to how to develop a vision comes from an important lesson I have been working on since the very first moment I began playing a tuba back in 1994. As some of you may know, I came to the world of music late in life. I had long wanted to play a tuba. It was a childhood dream that fell by the wayside of reality. There were no tubas available to me in my grade school and high school years. Owing to this, I drifted into the world of football, wrestling, and track and field. And then I began busily building my career in the fire service. For many years I was completely wrapped up in the fire service.

Then a day came when I felt the overwhelming desire to become a tuba player. I had but one simple vision for myself. I wanted to make the bomp-bomp sound at the bottom of the band, any band. I saw myself marching down the main street of town proudly tooting on a bright brass sousaphone. I had a vision of me proudly playing the marches of John Philip Sousa. After years of being a listener, I wanted to become a participant.

I bought a used tuba, met an absolutely marvelous instructor and began to learn to play. As my skill level slowly began to improve, my instructor, Matthew Walters of Woodbridge, NJ, kept urging me on to ever-higher levels of skill and musical ability. He coached, coaxed and cajoled me to get the most out of my emerging musical abilities.

One of the primary coaching tools he shared with me has a wide applicability to almost every sector of human endeavor. He urged me to hear the music in my mind before I attempted to play the passage on my tuba. He continually reminded me that in the absence of imagination, there would only be a hollow series of mechanical music sounds. But if I could truly imagine the notes, as the composers and arrangers wanted them to sound, then I might become more capable, and far more musical.

Matt's tuba teaching method seems quite a bit like one aspect of Covey's approach to creating a better view of the future. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he urges us to "begin with the end in mind." How can we possibly know where to head, if we fail to have a goal in mind?

I guess that visions can be fancy, or they can be simple. The one thing that they cannot be is ignored. Far too many people drift through life without ever taking a meaning set of bearings as to where they are. They just keep hoping that something good will happen to them. These folks keeping wishing things will get better for them and their organization. That just will not do any good.

As my late mother-in-law was so fond of saying, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." You have to have dreams, but they are useless without purposeful direction and positive action on your part. I would dearly love to be thin. I have a vision of myself with my head astride the body of a professional athlete. But without a change in diet and exercise, that vision would be a useless pipe dream.

It has been my experience in life that all positive change comes from inside of a person. I wanted to become a fireman. I worked hard. I got my chubby young body in shape. I passed the written and physical tests and became a firefighter. No one gave me the job I wanted. I earned it my way. I had the vision of what I wanted to be and acted to reach that goal.

But I must stress at this point that it is extremely important to remember that flexibility is a critical element in our journey through life. We must be willing to make minor adjustments as we move through life, so that the journey does not become bogged down.

There was a time when I had a vision of me as a deputy fire chief. No matter how hard I worked in that direction, that vision remained just beyond my grasp. I tried not to let this battle for the next bugle affect my interaction with the people who worked with me in training, and later in my battalion. It was my problem, not theirs.

But there came a time when it dawned on me that the reality of my life lay within a new arena. So I moved on to the world of writing, lecturing and consulting. I grabbed a bit of control over my own life and began trekking in a new direction.

My vistas have broadened, and my view of the world has grown wider and deeper by the week. And I have a much wider vision for the fire service in general. I see a day where the barriers between every sector of the fire service are torn down, much like the Berlin Wall was broken into a rubble-strewn heap back in 1989-90. Career, volunteer, industrial, subscription and private will all sit at a common table sharing the fruits of a unified fire service.

There are those who would call me a dreamer. There are those who accuse me of being a heretic. But are not all who challenge the prevailing wisdom in any field held up to scorn? Think about it. How was the first person received who suggested that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe? Today, we would probably call that person a nutcase, because he challenged the common wisdom.

Today, we take space travel as a way of life. In my youth, talk of outer space was the stuff of Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was for President Kennedy to talk about putting a man on the moon during the 1960s. I can also remember sitting in our fire station in Vietnam listening incredulously to that first trip to the moon on the Armed Forces Radio Network.

It is my fervent belief that we must develop the skills necessary to create clear and cogent visions of the future if we are to succeed as a fire service. The old molds must be broken and new ones cast that will create a solid future for the fire service. Since all good works begin within us, as thinking, reasoning humans, the only limitations we will face are those we impose upon ourselves.

Look to the future. Imagine what might be. And then begin moving in that direction. Don't wait, because today is truly the first day of the future. Make your move right now.

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