Planning Your Career: A Guide for the New Leader

Sept. 1, 2008

How many times have you heard the old axiom of management stating that in order to succeed, people must plan their work and then work their plan? If you are like me, you have had this thought drummed into your head over the years. Unfortunately, many people just hear the words and fail to understand their meaning. A failure on your part to plan your career will earn you a trip to the world of career collapse.

Each person has the potential to become a leader. It sometimes is a matter of fate as to who becomes a great leader, but each of us has the potential to achieve great things. Of course, this presumes that we intend to try. Hilarie Owen speaks to this fact early on in her 2000 text, In Search of Leaders, when she shares a thought from John Gardner, who wrote, "The reservoir of unused human talent and energy is vast." To that, Owen adds, "Among the untapped capabilities are leadership gifts" and goes on to state in a most straightforward manner that, "The premise of In Search of Leaders is that the only crisis in leadership is one of perception and understanding."

I agree with the basic premise of this text. Throughout the past 30 years, I have championed the cause of leadership in the fire service. My research and experience indicate that many of the greatest organizational failures in the fire service have been caused by the inability of people who are placed in leadership roles to actually lead their organizations or the sub-groups with which they have been entrusted.

Leadership has played an important part of my working life. For 22 of my 26 years in the Newark, NJ, Fire Department, I was privileged to serve in positions of leadership. My responsibilities ranged from command of four firefighters at the company level to 140 people during those times when I was a city-wide shift incident commander. In addition, it was my privilege to command both line and staff units. I observed many more senior leaders and built my style of leadership from a combination of experience, education, training and observation of others in action. Those styles that seemed to work were copied and those that seemed to fail were discarded or avoided.

Over the course of my career, I came to see my personal style of leadership as being a combination of three styles:

  1. Situational
  2. Servant
  3. Spiritual

In 1995, Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard created a body of work at the United States Military Academy that explains their approach to what they term "Situational Leadership"®: "Situational Leadership is an attempt to demonstrate the appropriate relationship between the leader's behavior and a particular aspect of the situation -- the readiness level of the followers." They suggest that a leader's success depends upon the ability to understand and read the readiness of his or her followers in any given situation.

Hersey and Blanchard go on to define the style more tightly. "In Situational Leadership readiness is defined as the ability and willingness of followers to perform a particular task." An important part of their theory deals with the ability and willingness of the follower to perform those particular tasks. It is not enough that the leader knows how to deal with people under this style of leadership. The leader must also ensure that the followers are trained and willing to do the task in question.

It would appear that the Situational Leadership style would require a great deal of day-to-day interaction between leader and follower to ensure that they are ready when the time comes to act. The importance of this is stressed by Donald Favreau in Fire Service Management (1973), when he states, "Keep your men informed... (and) train your men as a team."

As a member of the fire service, teamwork has served me well as a critical aspect of the operational mix. However, experience indicates that in addition to the situational demands of firefighting, a strong focus on the people doing the task is critical to operation success. Before I knew that there was such a style of leadership, I specialized in taking care of my people.

My theory was really quite simple. People should be valued as individuals and for their ability to make significant contributions to the success of an organization. The age-old appeal that people should do unto others as they would have them do unto them serves as the basis for the concept of servant leadership. In The Servant Leader: How to Build a Creative Team, Develop Great Morale, and Improve Bottom-Line Performance (2001), James A. Autry sets the tone for servant leadership when he states, "True leadership, unlike management, is not just a set of skills and learned behaviors. What you do as a leader will depend on who you are."

This is a critical element because people will always see who you are and what you do. They are not able to see the thoughts within your head. How leaders act and how they treat people will serve as the basis for people's judgment of them. Autry goes on to delineate a set of "Five Ways of Being" that underlie his theories regarding servant leadership.

  1. Be authentic
  2. Be vulnerable
  3. Be accepting
  4. Be present
  5. Be useful

These basic actions appear to be derivative thoughts that spring from the "Golden Rule." If individuals are doing unto others as they would have others do unto them, each of the above acts, actions or activities would be on the list of things to do.

I believe myself to be a man possessed with a deep and abiding faith that underscores every activity in which I participate. It would seem logical to state that spiritual leadership appears to be an advanced form of servant leadership, albeit with more religious overtones. In a 2002 article titled "Leadership in Turbulent Times Is Spiritual," Margaret J. Wheatley tells us that "many people have a spiritual practice and rely on it to help them succeed as leaders and work colleagues" (Executive Excellence, Volume 19, Issue 9).

Given the number of close calls that I have witnessed during my more than four decades of responding to emergencies, faith seems to be the only way to explain how I have managed to escape unscathed. I developed a style of leadership that placed the needs of my co-workers ahead of my own.

I have undertaken this outline as a means of developing a personal plan of growth and progress in the world of leadership theory. Opportunities for leadership abound in my life, as a fire commissioner, volunteer firefighter, band member, Mason and church member. It is with these things in mind that I undertook this project to study my own life and career. I like to believe that I have crafted a vision for the future. To achieve that vision, improvements to my leadership capabilities must occur. I have undertaken this project in a logical, straightforward manner. It is hoped that the tools and approaches created will yield the desired results.

Conducting a self-assessment is one of the most difficult tasks that anyone can perform. In my next commentary, I will discuss my plan for the future based on my experience as a consultant and in the fire and emergency service world. I will also make great use of the data generated by the battery of assessment instruments used during my time as a student at Capella University. I will go into greater depth to illustrate my example of how a self-assessment plan can help someone to assess his or her skills and lay out a plan for future success.

DR. HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Dr. Carter is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners 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 vice president of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). He recently published Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a blog. He may be contacted at [email protected].

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!