Several years ago I agreed to participate in a fundraising event. The idea sounded fun but there was no joy when I jumped in a cold lake wearing my full police uniform. Law enforcement across the country does the “Polar Plunge” every year to benefit Special Olympics but I’m not sure I will ever do another one. I’ll never forget the uncomfortable feeling of hitting the cold water. Every fiber in my body was telling me to get out and do it quickly.
But something very interesting happened in that icy water. I started feeling better. My body went from being in one of the most uncomfortable states it had ever been in to feeling relaxed. While I wouldn’t say it was complete comfort and joy, you could say that I got comfortable with being uncomfortable.
You may be surprised to hear that when you embrace the principles of Courageous Leadership, you will need to do the same. You will need to understand that being comfortable with being uncomfortable is exactly where true leadership begins and ends.
After studying the traits of courageous leaders for many years, I have come to the conclusion that success is always wrapped around leaders that make the effort to constantly remain in this uncomfortable state.
This idea goes against our innate human nature and it is why leadership is failing around us.
What Does Comfort Look Like
Comfort in leadership and thus agencies takes on many forms but I’m betting that you’ve seen it. The adage that “we do what we do because we have always done it that way” permeates throughout the profession and status quo has destroyed more agencies than I can recite.
Comfort will also rise up when that hard working officer or supervisor “finally” makes it to the top of an organization and the high expectations are quickly dashed when you realize that nothing is changing.
There are a myriad of reasons why leaders choose comfort over truly leading but this ideology is built into our culture and it takes extreme courage to break the chain.
Why Does Comfort Prevail
As I mentioned earlier, comfort is our default and it happens to be the easiest path for a leader in law enforcement. Unlike private industry, law enforcement positions are paid the same whether you do a lot or do nothing so there is no monetary incentive to get out of a comfort zone.
Change, outside the status quo, has further challenges for the leader. Inevitably, change will make others uncomfortable and there will be roadblocks in the way and it becomes much easier just to stop trying.
Finally, I’m convinced that our own culture promotes comfort through our typical promotional process. By the time someone reaches middle management and especially upper management, they likely have a few decades on the job and the mindset at that point, is that they “made it.”
Once you make it to the top, bad leaders will consider that the pinnacle of success. They did what they did to get there and there are no incentives left to keep leading in a great fashion.
But That Is Not Leadership….That Is Cowardice.
While I don’t speak for every agency and every leader, I have seen more of this in my 30 year career than I care to discuss and if you are honest, you likely have as well.
Our profession even has a name for it….”Retired On Duty” and while I’ve heard a lot of leaders say that about others, I wonder how many of them have let comfort reign?
Courageous Leadership is hard and when something is hard, it becomes like a unicorn. It’s hardly seen, very rare but when it occurs it is absolutely magical.
Courageous Leadership is not for the faint of heart. If done correctly, there will be a constant stream of uncomfortable decisions, conversations and confrontations. Navigating these waters is difficult and the average tenure of a police chief is low, in part, because we must do a better job of preparing to lead while being uncomfortable.
The great Chinese Military General and Philosopher, Sun Tzu said that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” Understanding the enemy as comfort, we must also take great strides in knowing who we are.
After 30 years in policing, I have to fight hard to stay uncomfortable. I’ve promoted well above what I ever intended (and what others likely wanted) and I’ve worked just about every assignment there is. It would be easy to just sit back and rest on the achievements of the past. Frankly, with so many others doing the same, it would be easy to fit in but being comfortable is not only not fun, it’s downright boring. I’m a big believer is setting goals and working towards them. They are written down where my employees see them and when possible, I try to include those around me as progress is made on those goals.
How To Start
Leaders should never start this journey with huge ideas to change it all but rather small goals, that can be achieved quickly, which lead others to the larger goals in mind. Your employees should be given ALL the credit for these “quick wins” and that will only bolster their interest (and hopefully excitement) to move towards the next goal. Leaders also need to hold themselves accountable because in many organizations, no one else will. Self-Accountability is not a typical individual trait and I like to give others permission to hold me accountable.
The culture of our fine profession has a few bad habits and transparency within our organizations isn’t exactly our strongest trait. We often hold information close, believing that gives us some form of superhero status if we are the only ones to know but in leadership this can be devastating. No one will ever “willingly” follow you and they definitely won’t be uncomfortable along side you, if you do not constantly communicate the why and the how. That communication involves constant feedback and it is within this feedback that a leader can fine tune the goals moving forward. Transparency becomes easy once a leader understands that they are rarely the smartest in the room and it takes empowering those around them to truly achieve a better organization.
Calculate The Risks
Courageous Leaders are risk takers but these risks need to be calculated. Not every issue is worth dying on a hill. Leaders must evaluate what must be done to make their agency great and work towards it one step at a time, with a clear roadmap. Understand that effective change management will take more than you and it is vital to recruit champions towards these goals. Remember, being comfortable is not just a chief or sheriff problem, it’s an organization problem. Leaders must take time and communicate to everyone in the organization why being uncomfortable for a short period of time will pay off big in the future.
Expect The Walls
I have never seen great accomplishments without great turmoil, stress and others trying to stop the progress. The lack of leadership combined with the lack of mentoring in law enforcement has created an automatic fight with just about everything that a leader may try to accomplish for the betterment of an organization. This is not only extremely uncomfortable but often times pushes the leader to simply give up and return to the status quo.
This is what separates the cowards from the courageous.
Courageous Leaders keep pushing for what is right. They expect the fight, they understand where the walls will be and they keep going. This can and will jeopardize the career of a courageous leader but that will not matter.
Right is right…no matter the cost.
Earlier I mentioned that courageous leaders will need to always make the effort to constantly remain in an uncomfortable state. This may seem impossible or even crazy but through time, just like that icy lake – you will get more comfortable and you will see incredible benefits.
The greatest leaders that ever lived led in an uncomfortable fashion.
Winston Churchill warned about the dangers of Adolf Hitler as early as 1930 but few listened. He continued to fight…
Martin Luther King understood that the key to advancing civil rights was nonviolent resistance when many disagreed. He continued to fight…
Abraham Lincoln was fully aware that the status quo of slavery had to go despite the divide and war that it would cause. He continued to fight.
All of these men suffered for their courage. Churchill lost an election while King and Lincoln were murdered.
Law enforcement leaders aren’t facing death for being courageous but the weakness is glaring. Leadership is supposed to be uncomfortable and sometimes messy and the quicker our profession realizes that, greatness will follow.
This article originally appeared on the Courageous Leadership Substack. You can subscribe to those weekly articles
Travis Yates is a commander with a large municipal police department and author of “The Courageous Police Leader: A Survival Guide for Combating Cowards, Chaos & Lies.” His risk management and leadership seminars have been taught to thousands of professionals across the world. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and Doctoral Candidate in Strategic Leadership.