Great Leaders Understand The Joy of Serving

Feb. 1, 2005

Why do so many people in our fire departments revel in stomping around our fire stations and emergency scenes with solemn faces? Is there a rule that we all have to wander around being all sorts of glum, dismayed and confused? Are we so solemn because of the perceived importance of our chosen duties and responsibilities that far too many people build up in their own minds? Whatever the reason, I am here to tell you that it is time to begin changing what we do and how we do when it comes to being service-oriented organizations.

Let’s all lighten up. It does not have to be all doom, gloom and denial. For whatever the reason, we have been called to serve our fellow citizens. We have a critical task to perform, but there is no written law that says we must hate what we do.

It is up to the leader to create an environment within which we will not only do good things, but do these things and gain a bit of enjoyment. A good leader can, and must, work to create an environment wherein each of us is caused to grow in skill, knowledge and service-delivery capabilities.

That requires a great deal from those who step forward to lead their associates. Each possesses a unique personality. They are who they are because of the where, how and why of their process of growth and maturation. It is because of this fact that every member of your team requires part of the leader’s time, talents and thought processes. It may well be that the least of us requires the most from the captain of the team.

The good leader realizes the total equation. The team is the sum of its parts. The whole is not more than what the parts of it bring to the team. Based upon literally decades of time in the emergency service world, I am here to tell you that a team will grow more solid and become more productive when the troops are happy.

I never really believed that old nonsense that says that you can tell when things are going well by the griping that is going on. Happy people do not gripe. People that are kept in the dark, abused, and fed phony or misleading information will not gel into a happy and productive team.

There must be rules, regulations and guidelines to insure that our team operates according to a common set of standards. It is the leader’s job to layout the rules and roles that our people are going to be required to perform. However, it is the wise leader who joyfully welcomes thoughts and suggestions from the team.

As I have stated on more than one occasion, I was always most pleased by those situations where the people who worked with me came up with the solutions to the problems we were facing. As a company officer, I worked hard to create an environment wherein the gang bonded together into a team. Whether it was an engine company, or a truck company, I worked to build a sense of pride and teamwork among the crew. I never dictated positions or duties.

The guys ran their own house-watch roster. They were the ones who had to do the duty; no sense being a dictator. It always worked out, because they knew that I trusted them. The guys knew that someone had to drive, someone had to step off at the hydrant to secure the water supply and someone had to carry the hoseline in to attack the fire. We trained as a team so that each of us could do whatever was needed at a given moment. In that way, when the fires occurred, I was free to size-up the fire, knowing that the guys were ready to do whatever was necessary.

The same things held true in the manner in which I structured my battalions and my divisions when I was on staff. I laid out the tasks that had been laid upon me by the organization, gave guidance as to what I believed should be done and then asked for my guys ideas on how best to do what we had to do.

Unlike many of my associates in command positions, I believed in creating an enjoyable work environment by working hard to care for the people that the city had placed in my care. We trained hard and we fought a great deal of fire. However, I believed in creating some light moments for my men.

I was most pleased by the performance of my guys. At the end of my first year as chief of Battalion Five in Newark’s Ironbound District, I gave every member of my command a Christmas present. One of my captains owned a printing and novelty business. I asked him to create a commemorative T-shirt for my gang. It had the battalion’s long-time slogan (a fireman sitting on a powder keg) and the words “Battalion Five, Tour Three” emblazoned underneath. We were called “the city’s powder keg” because our fire load was lower than the rest of the city’s, but when we had something, it was usually big and jolting.

When I was involuntarily transferred out of the battalion back in 1996, the same captain created another T-shirt for me. It was given to every member of my battalion, as well as the members of those companies that I worked with on a regular basis. It had the same emblem emblazoned on the back, but the words were different. It had the words “Battalion Five, the Carter Years” under the emblem.

I want to once again thank my good friend Captain Tom Grehl of the Newark Fire Department. He helped me to create the world that I desired for my guys. He was a real strong supporter. I relied on Tom to honcho the quarterly parties that I created for my guys.

There was the “Swing into Spring” party, the “In the Good Old Summertime” party, the “October-Fest Party” and the “Wintertime Wonderland” party. I would give Tom the task of creating the party theme and catering it at his fire station. It was the most centrally located in our district. The team would be assembled for a multi-company, district-level drill. When we were done with our duties, we feasted on one of Tom’s famous Sunday brunch meals. I always thought that one of the reasons that I was paid a bit more than the other guys was so that I could have the wherewithal to say thank you in meaningful ways.

Lest my pal Captain Jack Doll think that I am playing favorites, I would be remiss if I failed to mention his famous Friday night “Irish Pizza Parties.” Sadly, the crowd had to be much smaller for these, owing to the facts that Engine Company 5’s quarters were not centrally located and the parking was abysmal.

These events were not in any way a part of the official side of the Newark Fire Department. These were not mandatory formations, and people were never forced to have a good time. Guess what: everyone always came.

Our volunteer fire department in Adelphia is experiencing a real resurgence in teamwork and enjoyment. We are drilling more frequently, and the numbers of people at each offering remain high. There is a lot of hard work, but there is also quite a bit of light-hearted kidding. This makes for a better working environment.

I am a firm believer that when people enjoy what they are doing, they will do a better job. It is up to the leader to create this understanding of the joy of service. If it seems like I worked really hard to create a good work environment, you are right. It is easy to be a pain-in-the-butt, bump-on-a-log supervisor, but you have to work really hard to make a dangerous job enjoyable. It is always harder to do the right thing. It is our duty as leaders to bring the joy of serving back to the fire service.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is a former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). 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 [email protected].

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