Leaders Must Face Their Doubts

Nov. 1, 2004
Every leader has doubts. The good leaders face them head on and work their way through them. The not-so-good leaders join the ostriches in burrowing their heads in the sandy soil of their existence and hiding until the troubles pass. I suggest that behavior of that type is not productive.

There is a particular way in which I try to handle my problems: I think my way through them. I can recall one night last summer when I spent time on my front porch. As I sat in my favorite chair, the words of my kindergarten teacher, Miss Neumann, came tripping back into my brain: “OK, boys and girls, let’s put on our thinking caps.”

How insignificant I felt, as I sat in the presence of the stars, with the majesty of the heavens above me. I suggest that each of us needs to sit in humble awe as we observe the creations of the universe above us.

I have been concerned recently about just what it is I am working to achieve in the fire service. My detractors have been turning up the heat. I guess that means I must be getting to someone. I can recall the time when a buddy sent me an e-mail that spoke of one such warning that he got from an individual I considered to be a professional buddy. This person suggested to my friend that he should not believe what I say.

Talk about a humbling experience. I began to wonder, am I part of the problem or am I part of the solution? That is a tough one. I believe that I am a realist. As one who grew up fat in a world of mostly thin people, I got that way early in life. The longer that I live, the greater seem to be the number of the errors of my ways. Am I right or am I wrong?

There was a time in my life when I felt like I was invincible. I studied as much as I could about the fire service. I traveled far and wide in pursuit of knowledge. I wrote, spoke and shared all that I could about what I learned as I lived my life in the fire service. I pursued excellence, and thought that was how I should make my way in the world. It seems now that the more I learn, the greater the number of questions that fill my meager brain.

What is it that I believe in? What are my honest and sincere hopes for the fire service? What is my place in the world? What do I wish to accomplish? Does anyone believe the same things as me? Am I making a difference? Talk about serious questions.

Maybe I am just an idealist, or at least I hope that I am. I find it hard to believe that I can still be naive after spending more than a quarter of a century in the midst of one of our nation’s toughest, big-city political machines, but that is just the way it is. I still take people at their word. I am still a sucker for a hard-luck story, and I always root for the underdog.

Why have I chosen to take on the thorniest issues facing the fire service? Why do I continue to badger those who choose to treat the fire service like an orphan? I guess I do it for the people I know to be in fire service, and the thousands that I do not know, but hope are like the ones I do know. These are good people, many of whom are life’s underdogs, and as I said earlier, I always root for the underdog.

I truly believe that there are a great many fine people in the fire service. Sadly, I also believe that there are also some truly selfish, one-way-street people. Week after week, I search the world around me. I see a great deal that seems wrong. People are doing battle with the damning demons of a demanding boss. Is there anything I can do about this? Should I be working to do something about this? How long can I do battle against what in many cases turn out to be windmills? Why bother? This is a time for personal introspection.

Every once in a while, a person needs to stop, look around and say what the heck. What I mean to say is that I cannot get out of my responsibilities in life. My life has been cast in a very active mode. There is a lot to do and precious little that I would wish to change. However, that doesn’t mean that I have to go through my life without thinking about its direction. This is one of those times.

There are so many good things that the fire service can be doing. I guess a great deal of my frustration comes from the fact that far too many people fail to see the seriousness of what we do. I am not against fun, far from it. There is a time for frivolity and a time for serious action. Far too many do not know when it is time to address the second thought.

To these people, the fire service is all about fun and games. These are the people to whom training is an alien concept. These are the people who would rather party than practice their skills. There are many good parts to being a member of the fire service. There are the sports team and the parades, the ceremonies and the parties. These all serve to build our team, but they are not the be all and end all of what we do.

However, I want to stress to you that there are also the duties that we each owe to our communities, the fire department, the fire service and each other. Sadly, perhaps it is the last among those duties that occasionally falls by the wayside. We forget that we are members of a team. We forget that, as team members, each of us depends on the other person when the chips are down.

Perhaps it is the brushes with death that I have experienced during the past 37 years that have made me more attuned to the serious nature of our business. Perhaps it is the number of friends I’ve lost to death in the line of duty that made me this way. What I do know is that death can be sudden and seemingly random, and is always permanent.

Let me confess one of my greatest shortcomings: the longer I live, the less I seem to know, or at least feel like I know. Every time I learn something new, five or 10 or 20 other things pop up. I guess that it is this thought, among many others, that makes me wonder whether I am truly qualified to be giving advice to anyone. I guess you could say that I believe in what I am doing, but I just need some help in believing. Your feedback in the form of e-mails is most comforting, but I sometimes wonder whether I am trying to push you all in the wrong direction.

As I was channel surfing on my TV, I came across a speaker discussing the muddled values of our 21st century society. This man spoke of how the world is less defined than it once was. He spoke of how things were once viewed in the clear tones of black and white, right and wrong. He then spoke of how our nation is obsessed with not offending anyone, and with stroking every ego. This has led, he posited, to a muddying of the waters. This man then went on to define his thoughts on what is right and wrong in society. He suggested that we need to define for ourselves how we stand according to the great moral rights of history. He then defined his beliefs for his audience.

Perhaps that is what I am doing for my audience. I am sharing my view of the world with you. I frequently speak and write about the need to believe in things in life that are bigger than ourselves. I see the fire service as a large band of brave and unselfish people. It set us all and all that we do up on a great pedestal. I believe in the rightness of our mission. To those who agree with me and urge me on, I say thank you. To those who castigate me and question my motives, I can only suggest that I do what I do in line with the beliefs I have developed.

Perhaps it is fitting to close this month with a set of promises to you, my friend and reader. I promise to be:

  • Trustworthy
  • Loyal
  • Helpful
  • Friendly
  • Courteous
  • Kind

If these promises seem familiar to you, then you know where I got my start. If they do not, I suggest that you stop a Boy Scout and ask him.

Thank you for being with me on my journey.

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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