The Real Leader Is A Student

In my continuing search for better leaders in the fire service, my journey now takes me in another, new direction. In my May 2001 Command Post column, I spoke of my deep and abiding belief that truly great leaders are teachers, people who willingly share what they know. It is critical for you to create a knowledgeable team, if you are to succeed as a leader.

During a quiet period, I went over my notes on the topic of leadership. There were a number of responses to my original reader survey that served as the basis for this series of leadership commentary. Each added a layer of knowledge and understanding to my own personal view of leadership. They allowed me to grow as an instructor, writer, and lecturer.

Let me share a few more of those thoughts with you:

Do you see a trend forming here among these comments? It is fairly obvious to me that the people who shared their leadership thoughts with me think that knowledge is a good thing for a leader to possess.

The quest for knowledge started early in my life. My father and mother firmly believed that a strong, solid education served as the basis for improving our lot in America. Three of my four my grandparents were immigrants. They came to this great nation and earned their way by the sweat of their brow. My uncle was the first to earn a college degree in the family in the 20th century. I was the second.

Oddly enough, my success in the fire service world came as a direct result of my failure at an outstanding American institution of higher learning. I was a work-study scholarship student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Although the Ivy League did not give out athletic scholarships, it was my play for a championship football team in high school that surely got their attention.

My grades were OK, but definitely not straight A in nature. Folks, I am here to tell you that I was not ready to learn. I was too immature to understand the great opportunity that had been thrust upon me. As a consequence, I succeeded as an athlete, fraternity member and party boy. Unfortunately, I failed miserably as a student. My old high school English teacher has often said that I had the talent, but lacked the motivation. As a matter of fact, I still see Fred Hazlett at our monthly Masonic Lodge meetings. I have made sure that Brother Fred has shared in my writing success over the years.

After flunking out of Penn, I found myself cast into the draft pool in June 1966. Trust me, gang – in 1966, you were either in college, physically unfit to be drafted (4-F) or on your way to serve in the rice paddies of Vietnam. My motivation in joining the U.S. Air Force in August 1966 was quite simple. I felt I had a better chance of surviving any time I would serve in Vietnam if I were serving on an air base, rather than out in the boonies.

It was during my time in the Air Force that I found my life’s work. I discovered that I loved being a firefighter. I found that it was a way of life where I could devote myself to helping others, and have a pretty good time doing what I came to love. I also discovered that learning as much as I possibly could was the way to get ahead.

I was blessed to be able to learn my trade at one of the finest fire schools in the world, the U.S.A.F. Firefighting School, which in the far-away days of 1966 was located at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. It was the Air Force that allowed me to hone my firefighting skills in places as widely separated as the Arctic region of Alaska, the steamy climes of Vietnam and the Philippine Islands. Oh, and they also sent me to a place called Arkansas.

It was during the 18 months of my career, spent near Fairbanks, AK, that I received an early appreciation for experience colored with education. The superintendent of the Eielson Air Force Base Fire Department back in those times was Chief Master Sergeant Joseph Haider, a man known throughout the Air Force fire service in that era.

A long-time firefighting veteran, Chief Haider had probably long-since forgotten more than many of his contemporaries had ever bothered to learn. He was a stickler for discipline and a firm believer in the gathering of knowledge. He had a carrot-and-stick approach to making sure that we all progressed through the On-the-Job Training program used by the Air Force at that time. During my time, I felt both the carrot and the stick.

It was here that I came to understand the importance of being a student as the means to climbing the ladder of leadership. There were tests that had to be passed. The people who studied harder usually were more successful. These were the people I sought to emulate.

The people who did not study always seemed to complain about the good luck that some people always seemed to have in their lives. I am not sure who the first person was to say it, but it has been my personal experience that the harder I studied, the luckier I seemed to be.

Throughout my 35 years in the fire and EMS world, I have witness the history of a never-ending cascade of changes that were continually invading my happy little world. It is entirely possible that I could have been ground into the dirt of history a long time ago, had it not been for my conscious search for knowledge.

It became clear to me early on in the Newark Fire Department that the people who got ahead were the people who became students of the field. I can remember the people who helped me to become a student, for they were the people who lived their lives as an example of how to get ahead. People like:

These were the people who served as my mentors and co-workers. Joe Pierce was the man who taught me how to study. He was also the man who taught me a great deal about loyalty and political maneuvering. John Griggs was the hard-charger who literally battled his way to the top. And Lowell and I came to be great friends in our competitive drive to climb the leadership ladder. He would beat me on one round of exams and I would come out ahead on another.

The one thing that all of us had in common was a drive to learn. We were all students of the fire service, and it was this that gave us the drive to succeed. I could have no better examples of devotion to learning that the men listed above.

Even during the dark days of my academic failure in 1966, I swore to my parents that I would do better. I vowed that I would continue my education and work hard to make them proud. My dad lived long enough to see me earn all five of my degrees. I know it was a great source of pride for him, because he told me so. I do want you to know that his lack of a formal post-high school education did not stop him from his continual search for knowledge.

My father devoted a great part of his life to the military. After combat service as an infantryman in Italy during World War II, he devoted the next 34 years to the National Guard and Army Reserve, retiring as a full colonel in 1979. During his career, he attended a great many Army training schools, usually as a resident student.

The crown jewel of his educational career was his graduation from the prestigious Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS. Even though he barely skated out of high school in 1940, he was able to hold his own with the college men at Fort Leavenworth. He graduated in the upper one-third of his class at the end of the six-month residential program.

Dad knew that the key to success was knowledge. He instilled that in both my brother Bob and me. As a matter of fact, very few people know that my brother received his associate in applied science in fire safety with honors. He spent many semesters on the dean’s list at Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ. He keeps saying that he is the hands-on kind of guy and that I am the student. That is partly true, because as I have often said I possess absolutely no identifiable mechanical skills.

Let me share a family secret with you folks right here and now. Today my brother Bob is arguably the best chief officer in the Newark Fire Department, and a believer in knowledge as the basis for success.

It is my hope that the message in this missive has not been missed or misunderstood by you. You can only go so far in this world on brawn, bull and bewilderment. At some point, it is the application of knowledge that will separate the truly great leaders from the folks who everyone just seems to like. The great leaders are those who devote themselves to becoming lifelong students of the fire service.

Please join us on our voyage to a better future in the fire service. Please become a student-leader for the future.

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