5 tips for female leaders in a paramilitary organization

Gender issues can be uncomfortable for cops to discuss, but brothers and sisters in police work must get through, over, and beyond them for organizational success


I’ve been following with interest the case of U.S. Navy Captain Holly Graf, who was stripped of command of the guided missile cruiser the U.S.S. Cowpens in January after accusations of “cruelty and maltreatment” of her 400-member crew. The just-released internal report concludes that Graf “repeatedly verbally abused and committed assault” against her crew, used her position for personal gain, and was guilty of other serious accusations. Time magazine called her a “female Captain Bligh.” Ouch.

I initially viewed this case with suspicion. One of the accusations against Graf was that she frequently used curse words and “repeatedly brandished them like clubs against subordinates.” I thought, “She’s in trouble for swearing?!” I guess I should be thankful that the Navy never came to one of my roll calls. In most police departments, there is no shortage of “salty language” in and out of the station, and I was as guilty as the next sergeant for throwing around an F-bomb or two in front of my troops. In fact, very early in my law enforcement career, I was disciplined for “swearing too much for a woman” (no, I’m not kidding) so I wondered if Graf was the victim of a system that didn’t want their female sailors to swear like, well, like a sailor.

I did some more research and discovered that while Captain Graf admits to raising her voice and using curse words, there is overwhelming evidence that she verbally and physically assaulted subordinates and created “an environment of fear and hostility” on her ship. Hundreds of complaints about her apparently “fell on deaf ears” over the years, and she continued to rise through the ranks of Navy leadership. There is some talk on the military blogs that Graf’s behavior was tolerated because of her gender. But as one female junior officer reported, “she betrayed our gender” and was a “terrible ship handler.”

Others claim that Graf rose to rank too quickly because of the Navy’s overeager stance on promoting women before they are ready to lead.

Some might argue that seemingly qualified women like Holly Graf, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1985, should be promoted quickly to make up for all those women before her who were held back, but it doesn’t do much good to promote someone based (even partially) on gender if she ultimately fails. In that failure she disgraces the rest of her female counterparts, not to mention her rank, her organization, and ultimately, her country.

I don’t think anyone out there can deny that women have had to fight for acceptance in traditionally male professions, including the military (where they are still not allowed in combat positions) as well as in law enforcement, but attempting to remedy past discrimination by hiring, retaining, and promoting less-than-qualified women is nothing less than idiotic. I don’t know why Captain Graf turned out to be such a lousy leader, but her rise and fall should be a lesson for all of us in police work.

I speak with literally thousands of female cops each year, and the majority of them want to be treated no better or no worse than anyone else — they just want a fair chance at success. This used to mean we had to act, and be treated, exactly the same. However, as we learn more about the differences between men and women physiologically and psychologically it’s becoming more about understanding and accepting each other’s differences while still expecting the best from every single individual, male or female.

Let’s face it, law enforcement is still a male-dominated profession, and depending on the region and the department you work in, you may be one of the few women in a command position. So how do you avoid turning into a “Holly Graf” when you become a female police supervisor? Below are five suggestions for women who are leading (or want to be leaders) in a primarily male, paramilitary environment.  What is your experience?  What would you suggest?  Add your comments below...

1. Study good communication styles and learn (and accept) the differences between men and women. Many women in law enforcement become very “male” in the way they communicate; this may or may not work for you. As a slight-statured 22-year-old rookie who looked every bit of 16 when I graduated the academy, I tried to emulate my 6’2” former college football-playing FTO in the way he spoke to and dealt with people. Needless to say, it didn’t work for me. Find role models — both male and female — who are successful communicators. Observe them and use what you see to develop your own style. Learn about gender differences and how to use them to your advantage.

2. Don’t communicate when you’re upset. I’ve made this mistake many times in my career and it’s rarely (ok, never) ended well. Police supervisors sometimes have to bark out orders (“hit the door now!”) or warn a fellow officer of impending danger (Gun! Gun! Gun!). However, screaming at one of your subordinates “you dumb [BLANK], what the [BLANK] were you thinking?!” not only demeans them, it makes you look like an out-of-control lunatic who has to use emotion and profanity instead of real leadership skills. If you do make the inevitable mistake of “going off” on one of your people, apologize as soon as possible, be sincere, admit you were wrong, and move on.

3. Get to the point. Guys tend to focus on facts and tasks when they’re at work and they like action-oriented conversations; too much extraneous detail tends to lose their attention. Men generally like to use communication to solve problems, take action, get the job done, women have a tendency to add “I feel” and “I think” to work-related conversations, which often make their male subordinates’ eyes glaze over. Save the “I feel” stuff primarily for the critical incident de-brief or the shift gathering at the local brew pub (unless you’re supervising mostly women, who really like the boss to talk about gut feelings and the intuitive nature of what’s going on). At work, especially if you’re the boss, keep it short and be specific.

4. Stop “auditioning” for the job you already have. Women in law enforcement often become so accustomed to having to “prove themselves” that they keep doing it when everyone else has accepted that they’re in charge. If you’ve already been promoted, obviously someone has faith in your ability to supervise, so become a great leader, not an angry, abusive “Captain Bligh” who feels the need to shove their position down everyone else’s throat. Mentor, train, and inspire your subordinates, don’t spend your time demeaning them and making them wish they worked for someone else.

5. Mentor other women in your agency and beyond. I have been lucky to have some amazing mentors over the years, both male and female, but honestly, most of my mentors have been men. Women in law enforcement having some catching up to do when it comes to helping each other out. Dr. Lillian Glass reports that 40 percent of women who were the victims of workplace bullying were bullied by other women. That is unacceptable. Think about what you wanted and needed in a mentor and advisor, and then become that person for someone else. A truly successful leader is always looking for and training their replacement, not putting other people down.

I know that discussing gender-related issues is uncomfortable for many of us, but as we see more and more men attending our “women’s” classes like Street Survival for Women, and joining organizations like the International Association of Women Police (IAWP) the more we can agree on this: law enforcement is a brotherhood, and we are brothers and sisters in this crazy, dangerous, wonderful adventure that is police work.

Train each other, lead each other, care for each other, and enjoy the differences, whatever they may be.

Stay safe!

About the author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.

Contact Betsy Smith and Follow Betsy on Twitter

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