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Start the New Year by Resetting Your Moral Compass

We are at the beginning of yet another new year. Was it not just Jan. 3 1, 2011? As I grow older, I begin to see the wisdom imparted to me by a senior buddy years ago. He told me that in many ways life is like a roll of toilet paper. He told me that the closer you came to the end, the faster it always seemed to roll. If it is going this fast now, I shudder to think that lies ahead as I move toward signing up for Medicare in April.

I have often heard it said that the Global Positioning System (GPS) device is one of the greatest of all modern inventions. This little tool allows you to navigate the streets of an unknown area with a certain degree of confidence and security. It allows you to find your way through strange and challenging new places. It has been lauded as a tremendous tool.

However, I want to suggest to you that an increasing reliance on the direction and guidance provided by the GPS has caused some of the skills which allowed us to succeed in the past to deteriorate, atrophy and die off. What I am suggesting to you is that we have eliminated a lot of the thinking which we once used during our travels and replaced it with just doing what the GPS tells us we should do.

Are we still teaching people how to read a map? Are we teaching our folks how to navigate through the crowds streets of our response districts? Are we asking our people to go out and actually learn the street network in their response district? In many cases, I think not.

Rather than thinking for ourselves, we are merely obeying the commands of an inanimate object. Just look at the number of negative situations which have arisen from trying to do what the GPS tells us to do. Wrong turns down one-way streets and u-turns in busy intersections are two of these missteps which come into my mind's eye.

My friends, it is my hope that the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the military forces of our great nation are still teaching people how to read a map and use a compass. But Harry, you might suggest, they do not need those skills because they have GPS at their disposal. The same holds true for the military forces of our nation. How much of what our war-fighters do is governed by the screen on their GPS?

My friends GPS is an electronic tool. It is subject to malfunctions and power failures. What do our people do if the tool fails and they are left to their own devices? It is really simple. Somebody has to pull out the map and the compass and then lay out a course for success in mission accomplishment.

It is my strong suggestion that we all need to maintain certain thought-based skills in the face of a rush to replace thinking with tools, toys, and machines. There are certain timeless attributes which you must possess, maintain, and enhance. Whether it is map reading, the rote learning of the streets in our response district, or the core moral values which guide us as ethical people, we need to work at maintaining these skills. These are the elements of what I have come to call the personal "Moral Compass" which each of us needs if we are to succeed in this life.

This holds especially true for each you when it comes to taking care of the folks entrusted to you by your fire department. What I am suggesting to you is that you need to understand that you have a moral compass at the heart of who you are as a person. As you move through life on your leadership journey, you will need to review it, maintain it, use it, and enhance it. Let me also suggest that you occasionally have the need to reset it.

Even the best of can stray from the centerline of the right road. We take shortcuts. We take personal journeys of convenience. Or it might be that we actually do stupid things. Heck each of us is human and you know what the philosophers have said about that. I like to use the phrase, ".to err is human." It sets the right spirit for our journey through life.

We begin the journey with the best of intentions. It is our intention to do the right things, to take care of our people, and complete all of our tasks on time and on target. But guess what. Life happens. We do what we do and then move on from there. Sometimes we get away with things and sometimes we get caught. Either way, we have strayed from the correct path and need to make some mid-course corrections.

Let me suggest that rare is the person I have ever met in the fire service who was really an out and out scoundrel. Most people have the best interests of their troops at the center of their heart and soul. No one starts out to make things tough for their own folks, but it has been known to happen. It is my suggestion that you should look to your own internal moral compass for guidance. If adjustments are needed, make them. This is America. You have the right to change. More than that, as a leader, you have the obligation to change.

There are many different aspects which make up your moral compass. Each is critical. However, it is my intention to start with the two which lie at the center of all things good. These are honesty and integrity. In the world of my youth, these two attributes were an accepted part of my environment. For you younger folks, let me suggest those were the days when the phrase, ".a man's word was his bond," said it all. People operated on a handshake and you did not dare go back on your word.

My personal definitions of these two concepts might help you to find your way in a troubled world. To me being honest means that you do the right thing. Integrity involves doing the right thing when no one is watching. Let me suggest that these two are inseparable

Two other attributes which must lie at the heart of your moral compass are loyalty and courage. Being loyal means to be supportive of your fellow team members at all times. I have often heard it said that you cannot demand loyalty. No, loyalty must be earned by the way in which you live your life and are loyal to your fellow travelers.

Courage involves facing danger and not losing your head, jeopardizing your associates, or acting in a rash and unsafe manner. Acting like this can bring pain and suffering to your associates. Just staying with your team in a dangerous situation is an excellent example of courage. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that you take risk just for the sake of taking risks. This makes you foolhardy rather than courageous.

As the person setting the moral tone for your team, you are charged with setting to tenor for your operation. A screamer will scare people and set a tone of false and misleading excitement. Sometimes it takes a great deal of willpower to remain calm, assess the situation, and issue orders to perform challenging tasks. Your screaming can tip the operational scales in favor of panic rather than rational operations.

Here is where good judgment comes into play. You must be able to observe a situation, weigh the operational factors involved, compare them to the resources at your disposal and then deploy your people in a safe and effective manner. This is not an easy task. It takes time, talent, training, and practice to become effective. However, the rewards are great. Your people will ultimately be safer because of your efforts.

It is critical to be there to support and encourage your people. I am not suggesting that you merely reduce your role to that of a cheerleader. No, an effective leader knows how to perform their duties in an unselfish manner. You need to be there for them at all times. No need to assess their needs and then work to help them achieve their goals. This takes a great deal of effort on your part, but the results are well worth the effort.

You must display pride in the efforts of your team. I am not speaking of the bold and boastful type of pride known to exist in bars and other public places. The pride to which I make reference comes from the heart. You are proud of the efforts of your team because you have worked together, trained together, and faced danger together. This is a pride built upon effort and achievement, not boasts and false bravado.

One of the keys to success as leader comes from showing the persistence necessary to keep working and training to meets the needs and goals of your troops. It has often been said that persistence is at the heart of all great successes. When faced with the trials and adversities of life, it is the person with persistence who will work through the physical and mental pain to reach a successful outcome.

Your efforts must always be sincere and unselfish. You must never be perceived as working your people hard in an effort for you to look good and take all of the credit for their blood, sweat, and tears. People will think much more of you if you treat them in a fair and tactful manner. I have often been told that the working definition of tact goes something like this. It is the ability of a person to tell someone to go to Hell, but to do it in such a straightforward and respectful manner as to send them on their way happy to make the journey for you.

Let me suggest that it is a compilation of all the preceding attributes which allows you to reach the ultimate level of success. This is the point at which your people trust you. They have faith in your abilities and know in their hearts that you will do nothing which could consciously cause them harm. Faith and trust are at the apex of the leadership success.

Lastly, let me suggest that each of us individually must have faith in something. I know what I believe and why I believe in it. I have spent my life learning about my relationship with the Lord. The Lord is my strength and support. He is the rock upon whom I have built the house which is my life. No my friends, I am not seeking to convert you or evangelize you. You can choose the type and manner of your faith and the nature of your rock. However, I am just suggesting that there must be a central core of beliefs to guide you on your journey through life.

It never hurts to take stock of yourself and your talents. You must also assess the nature of your team and their capabilities. These two tasks should occupy a great deal of your time and talent as a leader. Unless you periodically reset your internal compass, you risk losing your way and damaging your team. Please take the time to do this. Thank you.

What better time to take stock of yourself and reset your moral compass than at the beginning of a new year. That time is now.

Please accept my best wishes for a Safe and Happy New Year.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his A View From my Front Porch blog. He recently published several texts, including Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at