The Great Leaders Keep Trying

March 1, 2008

You and I live in truly trying times. It is the age of instant gratification and the quick fix, but I want you to know that there are no quick fixes when it comes to leading people and accomplishing tasks. You cannot always complete your goals and objectives as quickly or as easily as you would hope.

Let me share an important point with you. I, for one, do not subscribe to this modern quick-fix nonsense. If you want something to happen in this life, you must be prepared to work for it.

You may be asking yourself how I came to tune into this particular message. The genesis for it came last spring in the words of Henry Winkler, as they appeared in an article in my local newspaper, The Asbury Park Press. Winkler is an actor, perhaps best known for his role as the "Fonz" on the old TV show "Happy Days." During an appearance at a fund-raiser in Toms River, NJ, his lecture focused on many of life's hard lessons that he experienced personally. He spoke of the role that focus and persistence played in his acting career. He also spoke of the importance of family in creating a proper life.

It was his final comment, however, that stayed with me: "Tenacity is the cornerstone of living." Think about it. This simple, but eloquent statement is truly something to focus on as we go about living our lives. But didn't we learn this lesson in kindergarten? I don't know about you, but I remember my grandparents and my parents endlessly telling me, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, again."

Stay with me. I'm going to get a little academic with you. I'm going to build a base of knowledge on one given concept, and then move outward and tie this concept to other things you and I face every day. It may be that I am asking you to come to grips with a concept that I call "hopscotch leadership." Far too many people jump from theory to theory and concept to concept when it comes to their organizational lives. I have often told you that patience is a virtue, but sadly it is a virtue that is losing out to the concept of quick fixes.

In this visit with you, I will be asking you to weigh the importance of selecting a course and then staying with it. I want you to ponder abiding by the old theory that "slow and steady wins the race." Perhaps it is the credit card industry where the concept of instant gratification lies at the heart of success: their business success. I do not know about you, but the ability to order something online by using my American Express card has had a great influence on my life, my library, my wardrobe and my wallet. I can have what I want tomorrow, if I am willing to pay the price. The telephone that lets you to take digital pictures is another manifestation of instant gratification — the instantaneous sharing of what one person considers to an important event or occurrence.

We in the fire service have been advised to look at the private sector for the solutions to our management and leadership problems. I am afraid that this has turned out to be bad advice. For as much as the private sector talks about strategic planning, it is the quick fix that many use to bolster their bottom lines. These business people have made the mistake of learning to live from quarter to quarter in their profit-driven race for the riches. They have failed to calculate the cost of the way in which they have chosen to do business.

It has been said that you never really know what something is worth until you have to pay for it yourself. Life has costs and life has consequences. If you keep jumping from place to place and theory to theory, you often outdistance reality and never come to grips with anything. You never see the long-term consequences of things. You never set goals, therefore you will never experience the joy of reaching them.

When I was growing up, my parents had a different view of life. They saved up for things and then bought them only when they had the necessary amount of money. It was not until I was in high school that anything approximating a credit card was made available to working-class people like my parents. I learned that if you want something, you must be prepared to work for it.

I am well aware of my shortcomings. I try to operate within my comfort zone. Back in 1999, management expert Peter Drucker, writing in the Harvard Business Review, spoke of the fact that "success comes to those who know their strengths, their values and how they best perform."

This is a topic about which I have written a great deal. Each of us needs to know who we are and what we can do. We must then use this understanding of ourselves as the solid bedrock upon which to build our lives and our careers. In a world of instant gratification, the concepts of success and tenacity seem strangely old-fashioned. These are two concepts where nothing ever happens in an instant. Like many of you, I subscribe to the concept that success is a journey, rather than a destination.

My journey through the world of education has been underway since 1951, when I entered the kindergarten class at the West Freehold School in Freehold Township, NJ. There were countless days of boring repetition, with occasional bursts of joy and success. Many have been the times when I thanked my teachers from those faraway days for the impact they had on my life.

After running headlong into the wall of failure at the University of Pennsylvania more than 40 years ago, it took me years to muster up the resolve to jump back into the educational world. Like many of you, I went to school at night and on weekends. It took me 10 years to go from having no college degree to completing my master's degree at Rutgers. I cannot tell you the number of times I wanted to pack it all in. Some days, the stress of work, combined with family and National Guard commitments, seemed to be more than I could stand. However, I had made a commitment to my father and to myself. After my failure at Penn, I assured my Dad that I would work to make him proud. This is something I believe I did. Before Dad died in 1988, he saw me succeed in the Newark Fire Department, the New Jersey Army National Guard, the Adelphia Fire Company and the educational world. He attended one of my commencement ceremonies and knew I had fulfilled my promise to him.

Looking back, I sometimes glance over the effort it took to reach my goal. The road was long and difficult. The goals seemed far off and lofty. The journey had its peaks and valleys. However, I am pleased with my life. I am glad that I kept pushing on in the face of frustration.

That is what this commentary is about. I am speaking of the need to persevere in the face of adversity. There is no sugar-coating here. Life is tough. You will have roadblocks and you will face enemies, but you must not quit. My buddy Jack Peltier is fond of saying, "If you give up, they win." You must push on and work toward your goals.

Many of you are in difficult situations. Maybe you work for bad bosses or are plagued by jealous co-workers. Sorry, but I cannot change that, but I can suggest that you practice the following precepts:

  • Patience
  • Prayer (if that is your way)
  • Perseverance
  • Tenacity

These will require hard work on your part. But the results should be better.

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].

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