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Fire Officers: I Once Was Lost but Now Am Found

How many times have you and I listened to the mournful sounds of that old Southern spiritual "Amazing Grace"? If you are like me, you have heard it at literally scores of firefighter funerals over the years. I know it always brings a tear to my eye because it makes me think of the many friends for whom it was played over the years in Newark and here in Adelphia, N.J. It has become a true tradition in our service.

However, how many times have you paused to ponder the lyrics of this revered song? We did just this in church the other day. The sermon from our Scott Brown the Senior Pastor at the Colts Neck Reformed Church did just this. In his sermon on grace and forgiveness he discussed how it was important to recognize our sins before we asked for forgiveness. My friends, the list for me is long and I know this. For me that is why this sermon was so important.

Then as is my way I began to drift from the central scheme of Scott's sermon. I moved into the world of the fire service and began to think of my many selfish actions. Let me suggest that in the early part of my career I was into the gathering of a great many things for the betterment of me, myself, and I. I wanted to show the world how smart I was by getting a whole bunch of college degrees. I also wanted to be promoted to show the world just how great I was. Not good my friends.

Let me share an important fact with you right here and now. These are the worst of all reasons to seek anything. Seeking things just for the sole reason of gathering more things than your friends is not a good way to live. It is my guess that these sorts of selfish behaviors stem from the things we did as children in order to earn the approval of our parents and friends.

I sometimes think that this is part of the problem I have with my occasional bouts of boring, boastful behavior. This is something which I worked to overcome for many years now. My kids have helped me to rein this in. But just when you think that you have the genie trapped back in the bottle, you tip the bottle over, the stopper falls out, and out pops the genie. I remain an aging work in progress. But I keep trying, that is what really counts.

It was not until I had been in a position of leadership for a period of time that I discovered that it was not all about me. I learned very quickly that the sun did not rise and set around me personally. In those cases where I failed to take care of the troops the consequences of my action came very quickly. In some way the team I was leading would experience fail. Worst of all, it became painfully obvious that any failures which occurred would be laid directly at my feet.

Let me share this lesson with you. It is not all about you. If you fail to create an environment wherein people can succeed, you will fail. Yours is not the only way of doing business. Be open to change and be willing to seek advice from the people who will be most directly impacted by the actions you seek to take. None of us knows everything about everything. We must be willing to listen to others if we are to empower them and bring them fully into the heart of our organization and its operations.

Sadly, many are the younger people around us in positions of leadership who have yet to learn the important lessons of humanity and humility. The go about performing their duties much like human vacuum cleaners who are seeking to suck up all of the privileges which they think that their positions of leadership offer to them. Sharing with other folks is an unknown quantity among these trivial trophy-collecting troops. This is simply not right.

For these folks, the thought of treating others with kindness and compassion is something which only sissies do. These people stumble along through life shouting orders like the old "bull of the woods" leaders which were so common back in the days of sweatshops and dimly lit, old factories. My friends, this is not the recipe for organizational success for which your fire department should aim.

In my early days as a captain the Newark Fire Department, I encountered a number of these old-school style folks. I don't want to call them leaders because they did not lead. Much like the people who herded cattle in the Old West, these people took great pains to drive their people in the direction which they had decided was corrected. They neither sought nor accepted suggestions or advice from their team.

How do I know this you might ask? I know this because I worked for just such a Captain. My bother and I were both on the same engine company during this period of time. He and I were subjected to the same 'I am the boss' style of supervision. I say supervisions because I never really saw this guy as a leader. Let me suggest that I can recall commenting that if I did everything the exact opposite of this fellow's style, I could not help but succeed as a company commander. Guess what? I was right.

I offer my hard-earned experiences to you as a gift, a gift which I learned only by experiencing one embarrassing lesson after another, year after year of my career as a leader in the fire service. Perhaps the most important lesson finally came to me one day in church. After all, that is where some of my greatest thoughts have come to pass.

Following a particularly brilliant, insightful and expansive sermon on how to act in positions of both leadership and followership, the guts of my life philosophy came together. It wasn't brilliant, but it was life-changing for me. I could not wait to share it with the man who motivated me to create this new and engaging philosophy of life.

As I was leaving church that morning, I waited in line to shake hands with my Pastor and thank him for his guidance and motivation. I thanked him and told him that he had caused me to make a life-changing determination on just how I should act here on 'God's Green Earth'. I guess he was expected much more than I had to offer.

He asked me the nature of my newly created personal philosophy. My answer was as plain and simple as I could make it. I laid out my philosophy as simply as possible. "Don't be a jerk." Scott stepped back for a moment, paused to ponder my comments and then stepped forward to shake my hand a bit harder. He then told me that my choice of words was not quite what he would have used. However, he thanked me for forming the gist of his comments into a philosophy which could be used here in life. Let me offer these words of advice to you for your use in the fire service. I promise they will word if you remember them and actually choose to use them.

Remember, "…Don't be a jerk…" I know that I work hard to operate according to my personal theory of life. Take care and stay safe.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Howell Township Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark Fire Department as a battalion commander. Dr. Carter has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company since 1971, serving as chief in 1991. He is a life member and past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and life member of the National Fire Protection Association. He is president of the United States of America Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) of Great Britain. Dr. Carter holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN.