Handcuffs, Firearms, and ...Introspection?
Why "Soft" Skills Are So Important for Law Enforcement Leaders
(And 10 of Them to Focus On)
Roy Alston explains why law enforcement leaders need to focus on their softer sides in order to effectively influence their teams and achieve optimal results.
King of Prussia, PA (June 2013)—Law enforcement professionals are very proficient when it comes to technical skills. They're trained and tested on numerous processes, procedures, and competencies including firearm handling, search and seizure, arrest protocol, emergency vehicle operations, traffic laws, and much more. But one thing is notably missing from most training programs, especially those for leaders: an emphasis on so-called "soft" skills. And that lack of skill is keeping many officers (and by extension, their teams) from reaching their full potentials.
"There's a common misconception that law enforcement leaders don't really need to refine their people skills; after all, who cares how 'nice' you are when you're hooking and booking bad guys?" comments Roy 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. "But the truth is, there's a lot more to effective leadership than knowing rules and regulations and being able to assign tasks to squad members, for example."
Specifically, says Alston, law enforcement leaders need to be able to cultivate productive relationships with subordinates, peers, supervisors, and members of the public (all of whom may want different things) while meeting objectives, overseeing training, boosting morale, staying focused on the mission, and (hopefully) being guided by a set of core values. And those things don't just happen—they require well-developed soft skills.
In fact, the purpose of The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals is to help emerging law enforcement leaders develop those skills. The book tells the story of Adam McGraw, a newly minted police sergeant who is put to the test after he is assigned a squad of underperforming police officers. During his first few months on the job, McGraw's mentor, Stanley, helps him understand that it takes more than rank to truly establish authority, that results are driven by setting clear standards, effective communication, and the belief that a team is only as good as its people.
"If you've been in law enforcement for any length of time, you've encountered colleagues with very few soft skills to speak of," Alston points out. "They're the leaders who make no effort to accommodate the needs and preferences of other officers, who make inconsiderate and demoralizing comments to subordinates, who are dictatorial and punitive, and who have unclear standards, to name just a few examples. These types of leaders do not positively impact morale or maximize their teams' potentials. In fact, it's not uncommon for the officers under their command to be disillusioned and miserable."
Clearly, helping new leaders to master the softer side of law enforcement is crucial in order to ensure that their units are motivated, effective, and focused on the right goals. Here, Alston shares ten soft skills you should be targeting, and why each is important:
Professionalism. According to the United States Department of Labor, professionalism includes "conducting oneself with responsibility, integrity, accountability, and excellence." Sure, that definition sounds simple, but according to Alston, these elements are the foundation of true leadership. Without them, a unit's culture will be toxic and self-destructive. You've seen a lack of professionalism in action when leaders cut corners, take responsibility only for positive results, distance themselves from officers who make mistakes, point fingers, and throw team members under the bus for personal gain.
"If you have been chosen to lead, you must always hold yourself (and by extension, your team) to a high, unwavering standard," Alston explains. "You can't be afraid to make tough calls when right and wrong are at stake, even if it means punishing someone you like. Being a leader also means that you, and you alone, are 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. The buck stops with you. Your team should feel comfortable admitting both missteps and successes to you, and they should be aware that you'll accept nothing less than their—and your—best."
Concern for others. Sure, law enforcement leaders don't have to care about their officers in anything but a strictly professional capacity. They're not required to learn about their subordinates' personal situations, their likes and dislikes, their families, or how they feel about what happens during their shifts. But a smart leader makes an effort to ask about all of these things, and more. When your team knows that you care about them as individuals, not just as "tools" for getting a job done, they'll be more motivated and more willing to go the extra mile.
"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."
Clear and effective communication skills. A lot of well-meaning leaders get consistently subpar results not because they don't know their stuff or because their teams can't do the work, but because of a breakdown in communication. Think back over your own career. You know how frustrating and limiting it can be to work for a supervisor who seems to think that everyone in his or her unit can read minds, who spends too much or too little time explaining concepts, or who is unable to clearly articulate ideas, instructions, and preferences.
"You can know all there is to know about law enforcement, but unless you are able to translate that knowledge into a format your officers can understand and act on, you'll never be an effective leader," comments Alston. "When honing your communication skills, it's often helpful to talk to a mentor who has stood in your shoes and ask for a critique. Chances are, that person will be happy to spare you some grief by telling you what works and what doesn't.
"For example, in the book, Stanley tells McGraw to delete any words that don't change the meaning of the sentence when he's writing something. Stanley also advises that McGraw tell stories whenever possible instead of just giving instructions. That's because good teachers talk about people making choices and taking actions in real-world terms instead of limiting the discussion to concepts and theories."
Problem-solving. We've all known leaders who were stymied by problems that weren't covered in rulebooks and procedures manuals, for example, or who just weren't willing to take on the work of completing difficult tasks. Chances are, these individuals weren't respected by (and may even have been resented by) their teams, because everyone knew they were on their own if the going got tough. It's also likely that the same mistakes were made over and over again because root causes were never addressed.
"As a leader, you can't bury your head in the sand when something goes wrong, whether it's a personnel issue, a task you aren't sure how to complete, a mistake you need to correct, or anything else," Alston insists. "You must address the issue and figure out how to resolve it, whether that involves educating yourself, writing out a plan, bringing in others for help, soliciting advice, or a combination of these tactics.
"It's up to you—the leader—to make sure your team learns from what they've experienced," he adds. "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."
Team building. If that phrase conjures up images of weekend retreats involving ropes courses, trust exercises, and awkward conversations about relationships and feelings, think again. When Alston mentions "team building," he's referring to a leader's ability to take a disparate group of individuals and turn them into a focused, capable unit with shared values, mutual trust, and common goals. (In other words, taking an "every man for himself" culture and transforming it into a well-oiled machine that's greater than the sum of its parts.) Effective team building improves morale, efficiency, productivity, and more.
"Team building starts with getting to know each individual member," Alston says. "After all, 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 in relationship to one another. A great way to begin is to ask individual teams members what their personal and professionals goals are. As a leader, your job is to help your people reach their goals. Remember, a police leader's rank does not represent that person's capacity to help themselves, but to help others move forward. And when everyone in the group is working in their 'sweet spots,' you'll be amazed by what their synergy can accomplish."
Mentoring and developing others. At one point in the The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals, 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," Alston 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."
The ability to motivate. 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. Or a sergeant never comments on his officer's performances, reasoning that "I don't need to pat them on the back for doing what they're paid to accomplish." Unfortunately, these types of situations can lead to frustration, a willingness to do only the bare minimum, 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."
The ability to work with subordinates. 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."
Conflict resolution. Conflicts come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of severity. But they all have one thing in common: If they aren't handled competently, decisively, and with a certain degree of sensitivity, they have the ability to halt progress and tank morale. In The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals, McGraw's initial reluctance to confront a subordinate's unorthodox behavior looks like favoritism to the rest of the squad, which causes discord and resentment. McGraw eventually realizes that his hands-off approach isn't working, and that sweeping his conflict with one officer under the rug has a negative impact on everyone in the squad.
"Resolving conflict is a two-pronged skill," Alston asserts. "First, you need to be able to recognize conflict when it's present. Usually, this is fairly simple if you're already working to maintain open, caring relationships with your subordinates. Team members will come to you with concerns, and you'll be able to tell when dynamics have changed. Secondly, you have to utilize the appropriate conflict resolution strategy to get team members back to focusing on organizational goals and not just personal goals. Be careful not to become too comfortable with a particular conflict resolution strategy as you deal with calls for service—using the same go-to strategy for all conflicts can have disastrous results."
Adaptability. As we move into the twenty-first century, law enforcement leaders are dealing with a world that's rapidly changing, both professionally and socially. They'll need to be creative, innovative, and resilient to be effective. (In other words, "the way we've always done things" might not cut it anymore.) Leaders must continuously think of effective ways to solve new problems and must also encourage their teams to do the same.
"Adaptability is all about a willingness to move outside your comfort zone and to use mistakes as learning experiences," Alston comments. "It's already becoming clear that the twenty-first century police organization will emphasize proactive leadership, fluent interpersonal skills, and collaboration amongst officers. At first, this might feel uncomfortable to officers who are used to what one character in the book refers to as ‘how things really work': doing the minimum you can get away with, keeping your head down and your nose clean, and moving up at the prescribed pace.
"Special training and career development opportunities not characteristic of this old style bureaucratic police organization will be required to retain good officers and maintain professional standards," Alston adds. "Teamwork will replace the old paramilitary hierarchy form of control in police organizations. And if you aren't willing to jump on board, you will soon be left behind."
"Soft skills like these are what differentiate true leaders from supervisors," Alston concludes. "Anybody with a basic level of competence can stay on top of ‘stuff' like keeping up with legal updates and making sure procedures are followed correctly. It takes a more elusive, less-emphasized set of skills to motivate and encourage individuals, to recognize and manage conflict, to make the tough calls, and to draw out a team's collective potential.
"Here's the bottom line," he adds. "The better a leader is able to protect and serve his team members, the more equipped they'll be to protect and serve the public. And that's what we're all here to do as we move into the future."
About the Authors
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 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, and The Leader's Compass: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Key to Success, 2nd Edition. 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.
About Academy Leadership
Academy Leadership uses principles taught and practiced at West Point and the Naval Academy to conduct in-house training programs, workshops, and keynote speeches to develop leaders who achieve powerful business goals. In short, Academy Leadership specializes in getting extraordinary results from ordinary people. How? By instilling a leadership philosophy that perpetuates self-discipline, honor, and integrity.
In law enforcement, individuals are often placed in authority positions with little or no leadership training. Academy Leadership accepts that many people have leadership potential, and helps law enforcement organizations work to bring out that potential through short- and long-term development. Academy Leadership's mission is to equip all law enforcement leaders with the practice, principles, and thought processes they will need to succeed in a challenging and changing profession.
About the Book
The Leader's Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals: A Values-Based Approach to Influencing People, Accomplishing Goals, and Improving Your Organization is available in bookstores nationwide and from all major online booksellers.