Acing the Leadership School of Hard Knocks
Nine Real-World Lessons for All Law Enforcement Leaders
King of Prussia, PA (February 2013)—As we move further into the 21st century, many new law enforcement leaders will be emerging—and the world they'll have to deal with (both professional and societal) is rapidly changing. Especially for newly minted first-line supervisors, the challenges that crop up can feel overwhelming, and responsibilities can sometimes seem to conflict with one another. What is the best way for law enforcement leaders to cultivate productive relationships with subordinates, peers, and supervisors (all of whom may want different things) while meeting objectives, overseeing training, boosting morale, staying focused on the mission, and being guided by a set of core values?
According to Roy Alston, law enforcement is doing a great job of preparing new leaders for the technical aspects of their jobs.
"But as those of us with experience know, there's a lot more to being in a position of authority than knowing about rules, regulations, procedures, and processes," points out Alston, coauthor along with Dennis Haley of the new book The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals: A Values-Based Approach to Influencing People, Accomplishing Goals, and Improving Your Organization. "Often, very little emphasis is placed on training and developing new supervisors as leaders."
That's the purpose of The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals: to help emerging law enforcement leaders develop the skills they'll need to clarify their values, guide their actions, and communicate effectively with their teams as they seek to protect and serve. The book tells the story of Adam McGraw, a newly minted police sergeant whose leadership skills are put to the test after he is assigned a squad of underperforming police officers.
"During his first few months on the job, McGraw is helped through the Leadership School of Hard Knocks by his neighbor and mentor, Stanley," Haley describes. "Among other things, McGraw learns that it takes more than rank to truly establish authority, and that results are driven by setting clear standards, effective communication, and the belief that a team is only as good as its people."
"Why is good leadership so important?" Alston asks. "Well, if a leader can't inspire his or her squad to do more than the bare minimum, that's all they'll ever produce in terms of results: the bare minimum. The quality of leadership directly correlates to the quality of outcomes."
Clearly, helping new leaders to master the "intangibles" is crucial. Here, Alston and Haley share nine important lessons that all law enforcement leaders should know...but aren't necessarily taught in the classroom.
Develop a personal leadership philosophy. In The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals, McGraw's mentor, Stanley, helps him to formulate a personal leadership philosophy, or PLP. Essentially, a PLP lets your team know what to expect from you and what you expect from them. Stanley tells McGraw, "You've got to let your team know what you believe in, what's important to you, how you want to operate. In a way, it's like giving them a look at the compass inside you, the thing that keeps you on course."
"Essentially, a PLP gives you a strong foundation for making decisions, keeps you consistent, and gives your team a head start on knowing how to work for you," Haley comments. "It prevents a lot of problems from cropping up in the first place. Once you have outlined your own PLP, put it in writing and distribute it to your team. Publishing your leadership philosophy is an opportunity to spell out your commitment to consistent leadership. Good police leaders act consistently because they know what they believe in, are committed to those values, and act accordingly."
The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals shows step-by-step how McGraw creates his PLP. It also contains several real-life PLPs from law enforcement leaders that will help readers to create their own.
Think about what makes a good—and bad—leader. One reason why some aspects of leadership aren't taught in the classroom is that they are best conveyed through experience. Law enforcement leaders can get a head start on learning these things by considering good and bad authority figures with whom they've worked in the past. To get started, think back on the best and worst leaders you've known in your life—they could be coaches, instructors, and bosses, for example.
"Write down what made these people effective or ineffective, and then audit your own leadership style based on what you determine," Alston instructs. "You can use McGraw's list as an example. His best leader—a high school football coach—showed a true concern for people, was tough but fair, and had clear standards. He also exemplified sportsmanship, respect, and doing the right thing. McGraw's worst leader—his current lieutenant—was inconsiderate, rude, had unclear standards, played favorites, didn't take care of the team, and took responsibility only for positive results while seeking to punish others for poor results."
Realize that leadership is about people, not stuff. When your job is to protect and serve while following a myriad of policies and procedures, it's easy to remain focused on what McGraw's mentor, Stanley, calls "stuff": for example, keeping up with legal updates, making sure arrest/search/seizure procedures are followed correctly, making sure you are adhering to general orders, personnel rules, code of criminal procedures, penal code, traffic code, standard operating procedures, and filling out the correct paperwork. However, a look at the bigger picture usually reveals that police officers already do a good job of taking care of these specialized details. Yes, law enforcement leaders need to oversee their officers' efforts, but their primary job is to make sure that everyone works together, meets goals, and progresses on pace.
"Supervision is about stuff; leadership is about people—and there's a big difference between these two styles of management," Haley confirms. "Many people are adequate supervisors, but never become true leaders. So instead of concentrating solely on processes, rules, goals, and more, spend time getting to know your team. You have to know your 'tools' well if you want to use the right one for the right job. You have to know what's motivating each individual and how to reach them on a personal level so that you can maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. If all you're worried about is checking boxes, you may accomplish what needs to get done, but your team will never reach its full potential."
Let your team know you rely on them. Chances are, you've worked with a police leader who held him or herself aloof from the team and relied on a command-and-control leadership strategy. This police leader probably didn't solicit advice from their officers, and most likely saw ideas and suggestions as threats to his or her authority or competence. If that leadership profile sounds familiar, then you know that it creates resentment and fosters an us-vs.-them mentality among police officers, which is not conducive to good morale or achieving organizational goals.
"All good police leaders know that more can be achieved when everyone understands and is working toward the same objectives," Alston says. "To get your officers on board, let them know that while the buck stops with you, your work together is not all about you. Tell them that you want their advice, their help in anticipating and solving problems, and their ideas. Then, take their contributions seriously. This will help to create mission buy-in and boost morale. Plus, when your responses show that you have really heard what your officers have to say, they'll be motivated to continue helping."
Develop your people. At one point in the book, Stanley tells McGraw, "When people are successful at their work, it makes them happy. But keeping people in one area with no chance to move, or excluding other people because you don't want to take the time for them to learn, those are bad ideas. You've got to find a balance between putting people where they'll succeed and helping stretch their capabilities a bit."
"Stanley is correct: Development motivates individuals and improves the overall team," Haley confirms. "Yes, making sure that each team member's strengths are being utilized while he or she is also being challenged will take some extra time and effort on your part, but it's worth it. With each individual, you'll have to figure out how much guidance to give. Inexperienced team members may require more; others less. Try to give each person just enough help so that they're always challenged. Set tasks just beyond their grasp, so they have to stretch for it. That's how people learn and grow. Remember, when people feel stuck, they lose interest, and that's when productivity and morale start to decline."
Motivate through recognition and autonomy. The fact is, law enforcement is a profession that doesn't always reward employees based on ability and performance. You've seen it happen; for instance, a careless patrol officer gets paid the same as the best patrol officer, and might even make more than a good officer if he or she plays the overtime game right. Unfortunately, this type of situation can lead to frustration and low morale in high performers.
"To prevent this from happening, use recognition and autonomy as tools to reward and motivate your officers," Alston suggests. "Actually, numerous surveys have revealed that workers rank recognition and autonomy above pay when asked what makes them happy at work! Those findings make it pretty clear what you need to do if you want to lead effectively: Point out a job well done—ideally in public. Try to let your people have autonomy over what they do by allowing them to figure out the details of how to complete each task whenever possible. This increased sense of control will let them know that you trust and respect them (bonus: that respect will be returned), and it will lead to their taking more pride in their work."
Tell stories. It's incredibly frustrating when your team doesn't remember your instructions, doesn't apply them, or doesn't understand them in the first place. These disconnects can happen fairly often (the more people on your team, the more often), and they can definitely have negative results. According to Haley, you may be feeling like a broken record that nobody's listening to because you're focusing too much on the message and not enough on the medium.
"To lessen the frequency of your team not 'getting' it, tell stories," he recommends. "Good teachers talk about people making choices and taking actions in real-world terms instead of talking about concepts and theories. When you take this approach, your squad will understand you more easily, and they'll also be more likely to remember what you told them. It's the same concept as why we teach children important lessons through fables."
Show concern. Law enforcement is a profession that's difficult, demanding, and at times dangerous. And after months and years on the job, this atmosphere can begin to feel "normal." That's why it's so important to consciously remind yourself that your officers are putting a lot on the line when they go to work every day. They need to know you care about them, not just as members of the force, but as individuals.
"Be a whole-package leader by letting your team know that you care about their lives, on duty and off," Alston urges. "Make sure they know they can talk to you if they're having a problem. Remember, they can't always separate what's going on in their personal lives with what's happening during their shifts. At times, they may become preoccupied. Having someone to talk to can help them stay focused. Plus, those discussions will provide you with opportunities to learn more about your squad members, and, as a result, you'll be able to get a broader picture of their strengths, weaknesses, and true potential."
Know that the hard calls and the failures fall on you. If you have been chosen to lead, that means you, and you alone, are responsible for making the tough calls when they need to be made. You're also responsible for your team's failures as well as their successes. In other words, when an officer on your team makes a mistake or fails to follow a procedure on duty, it's not that officer's fault; it's your fault.
In The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals, McGraw learns this lesson the hard way when he assigns one officer to train another in paddy wagon operations and prisoner handling. After a prisoner sustains a minor injury as a result of not being belted in, Stanley helps McGraw see that the failure is ultimately his because he made the decision to train a new officer without spelling out what that training should entail.
"Most importantly, it's up to you—the leader—to make sure everyone learns from these experiences," says Haley. "A great way to do that is by pulling everyone together after an incident. First, acknowledge that you hold yourself accountable, then work together to figure out what happened and why. Most importantly, figure out how to make sure the mistake doesn't happen again. After all, those experiences are valuable only if everyone learns from them."
"A law enforcement agency or a squad of police officers without a strong leader is like a ship without a compass," concludes Alston. "Unfortunately, far too often, police officers are promoted into leadership positions and then must fight to sink or swim on their own. But becoming a great leader doesn't have to be a trial-and-error process—though certain elements on your journey will certainly feel like that. It is possible to learn to lead."
Haley adds, "When you take the time to figure out what it really means to lead and what kind of relationship a great leader must develop with each member of his team, you can do the job better and with a lot more confidence, and so can your team members."
Roy E. Alston, PhD, Sergeant of Police, Dallas Police Department, is the coauthor of The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals: A Values-Based Approach to Influencing People, Accomplishing Goals, and Improving Your Organization. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1989, after which he served in the 82nd Airborne Division. Following a tour of duty in the first Gulf War, he began his civilian career by holding several leadership positions in the retail industry. Alston currently serves as a police patrol supervisor for the Dallas Police Department in Dallas, TX. He is also the author of the books RadioActive Leadership: How to Pursue Excellence and Positively Influence the Behavior of Others and Tarnished Honor: An Insider's Look at Police Occupational Deviance. Alston is also a contributing author to the book Mastering the Art of Success. Alston is a member of the Academy Leadership team and an experienced facilitator, trainer, and keynote speaker on leadership and leadership development.
Dennis Haley is the the coauthor of The Leader’s Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals: A Values-Based Approach to Influencing People, Accomplishing Goals, and Improving Your Organization. He is also the author of The Accountability Compass: Moving from "The Blame Game" to Collaboration, The Core Values Compass: Moving from Cynicism to a Core Values Culture (2010), and The Leader's Compass: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Key to Success, 2nd Edition (2005). Following his graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 1967 with a B.S. in engineering, Dennis successfully completed Admiral Rickover's nuclear power training program and served onboard the USS Long Beach, a nuclear-powered cruiser. Leaving the Navy, he joined a small family-owned HVAC company in Philadelphia, PA. Over a 25-year career, he grew this small business into one of the largest and most respected HVAC companies in the Delaware Valley. He also contributed to the community by serving in a number of positions, including the board of directors of Fort Mifflin and president of the Delaware Valley Chapter, Air Conditioning Contractors of America. Dennis then left the heating and air conditioning industry to spearhead a new endeavor: helping others reach their full potential as leaders. He developed the Lead2Succeed™ process that creates the ideal environment for behavior change to take place.