By most accounts, the entire country has been impacted by recent high-profile use of force incidents. There are many opinions, good and bad, but one steadfast demand right now is a call for change in operations. This call comes to a law enforcement body comprised of human beings who currently have depleted morale and even its most seasoned representatives second-guessing themselves. It is disheartening—American Law Enforcement should be considered one of the world’s proudest professions.
So, where do we go from here? Research generally identifies adaptability and resilience as two components needed for success through challenge and change. I expect our profession to adapt to policy decisions with humility and professionalism as both resilience and adaptability are almost routine in this profession. The broad strategies for what this will mean is for executives and politicians to decide, but the boots on the ground will be the ones most impacted by these decisions…how will they fare in producing the desired results? The answer will rely upon what has been needed on a consistent basis historically, especially during the most trying times: Authentic Leadership from the front line. The reason is because genuine front-line leaders have an immediate impact on the daily lives, actions, and attitudes of our gatekeepers. Take ownership of this role, it’s what we need if we are to be successful.
Daunting? How? After a promotion, a detective partner of mine said, “You wanted to be the boss!” He was right, but I quickly realized leadership is not the same as being the boss. Being the boss includes words like managing, ordering, auditing, administering and monitoring. We hear them often and they sound great on oral boards, but they only maintain processes of the ship. Bottom-up leadership—the people—are what propel it forward. Put modest effort into some of these concepts and you will be surprised how your personnel fare as we advance.
Back to the Basics
A colleague reminded me how football teams revisit fundamentals after a loss. Coaches focus on blocking, tackling, and steer their teams toward aspects of the game they can control. We must do the same thing or circumstances become overwhelming. Break down each part of the squad’s shift and have an open discussion with them about what the entire team, including yourself, is doing well and where improvements are needed. Doing so will prepare the team to meet goals within its control, and it generates wins. Remind personnel why they signed up and to stand by their principles. It is also essential to reinforce the department’s role and mission so people do not begin developing their own conflicting vision of either during uncertain times. The team can only make progress if they understand and execute their purpose together.
As a result of the current climate, seek to understand the situation your personnel find themselves in and have the knowledge and empathy to help them navigate through their thoughts. You have successfully emerged from difficult experiences, which is one reason you’re in a position to lead, but the profession changes. Their experiences are not identical to yours, it is a different era. There are also generational differences to consider. Those who do not try to make sense of the world from points of view different from their own often have difficulty relating to folks and are usually met with conflict and failure.
Know and Care
Know your personnel. What are their strengths and weakness and are their assignments congruent with both? Do you know what motivates them? Misinformed people believe a paycheck drives everyone. For some it does, others want a challenge, responsibility or recognition. Almost universally, though, every human has a desire to feel secure in their environment. To assist in meeting that desire, care for them outside of their call sign and see them as individual people. Do you know their kiddo’s name or what problems they may be facing that could impact performance? Have you listened to them without controlling, correcting, or discarding their thoughts? Give them a voice—they’d make the ultimate sacrifice for this career.
Many supervisors—we all know them—confuse and condemn these concepts for various reasons. Leaders realize knowing, caring and treating personnel as people isn’t about fraternization and doesn’t relinquish authority or legitimacy. Instead, it does the exact opposite. It empowers personnel and during that process, your ability to influence and your individual authority dramatically increases. Why? Because it is these leaders whom our bravest men and women will run through a wall for and will model themselves after.
Stand for Good and Condemn Bad
Have you ever stood in front of command and defended a member of your team when the administration was unjustly critical or shouldered the blame and corrected the issues yourself? Have you ever advocated for equipment or getting rid of something that hinders the team’s ability to succeed? People are confident in and trust these leaders. What about bad tactics or those who aren’t in it for the right reasons? The latter is a small representation, but your team must know if anyone acts out of malice or is a risk you will admonish and weed them out as fervently as you stand up for the good men and women on the force. You should not be afraid to do so either. Legitimate command should never punish you for standing for good or condemning bad—they should demand it from you.
Leading others is hard work and it can take its toll. The myth of a complete and flawless leader is just that—a myth. No one can meet this standard, especially in our complex arena. You can still wear your burdens with honor and try controlling your attitude and behavior despite this fallible reality. Doing so creates consistency and reliability and is an excellent stabilizer for those who look to you for guidance during uncertainty. On the contrary, exhibiting Jekyll-Hyde behavior only causes others to start gravitating toward inconsistency and unreliable actions with their work.
These are just a few concepts that foster a culture where leading others at all levels of the organization can exist. They require no radical policy shifts, cost zero dollars, and likely don’t sway from people’s value systems or how they’d want to be treated themselves. If you are deliberate and intentional about efforts to practice them, your personnel will repay you tenfold and will replicate it to the citizens they serve.
For those in charge of the front-line leaders themselves, you know how critical they are in accomplishing your mission. You surely have a tough task ahead but make decisions with facts, not feelings. If you are to fight and win the good fight, your front-line leaders need support, consideration, and authentic leadership from you as well. Until next time, keep striving to serve with pride.
Joe “Woody” Woodland remains employed as a criminal investigator and has previous experience as patrolman, detective, special operations officer, and supervisor. He was also a generalist instructor for his home state and his training is highlighted in areas related to patrol/investigative tactics, leadership, supervision, and instruction. His education background consists of undergraduate and graduate degrees in Criminal Justice and he is a current Ph.D. student emphasizing his studies on organizations and leadership. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.