Let’s play a game called “Name that Leadership Style.” The rules are easy. I give you a statement made by a supervisor, and you guess his style of leadership. Round one: “You’re the officer. You don’t ask questions.” What leadership style is this? Is it: autocratic, democratic, or laissez faire? Ok, trick question — none of the above. We all recognize this individual. We each have this person in our organization. The police sergeant who made this statement, described by many as a bully who supervises via intimidation, readily admits that he has a vindictive streak that he has no interest in changing. The real question in this game however, is why management allows this behavior to occur, especially since most organizations have codes of conduct that dictate how members of an organization must treat each other.
This sergeant’s former supervisor acknowledged that he was aware of his overbearing behavior and vindictive streak when he told a sergeant — by whom, many opine our “problem” sergeant is professionally threatened — “Yes he dislikes you. He will do whatever he can to hurt you. But I cannot do anything about that.”
Instead, he preferred to ignore the issue knowing that in time, this problem individual would be passed onto another lieutenant. Why would a police manager choose to put his head in the sand and neglect his job, with the attendant results of permitting a hostile work environment for this sergeant’s subordinates and co-workers? The answer is lack of moral courage. If this police commander cannot muster the courage to deal with an issue as petty as this, how will he react in a real crisis?
Mark Twain observes, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”
In law enforcement physical courage is common. This trait is generally shared by those attracted to the job. Additionally, we are conditioned by the very nature of our work as we run towards threats while all others run away. We share this trait with those in the military, fire, medical, and aviation professions. But, we also have a characteristic that we share with most of the human race - we are largely adverse to interpersonal conflict within the work force — unless, of course you are a bully.
Like never before in our history, we are screaming for courageous leadership. Simply Google “Where are the leaders?” and you will see more than 90 million hits. But make no mistake — the scarcity of moral courage is part of the human condition as noted by philosophers and tacticians throughout the ages. American abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote, “Physical bravery is an animal instinct — moral bravery is a much higher and truer courage.”
While labeling someone a coward in our profession may be the worst possible insult, I often hear it used to describe those who are in positions of power. It is not uncommon to hear law enforcement officers across all ranks from all areas of the country opine that those promoted to leadership positions were selected for other than their honor, bravery, knowledge, and integrity. Those promoted are often described as “yes men.” As antithetical as it is, those in command who talk the talk of not wanting to be surrounded by “yes men” actually do want these men and women in their inner circle as demonstrated not by their words but by their actions. Is this something new or has it always been so? I cannot say. However, it appears to be more common than when I started in the industry 30 years ago.
We certainly had — and continue to have — courageous leaders in our nation and in our profession: Ronald Reagan in politics, the reverend Martin Luther King in religion and civil rights, retired teacher and principal Joe Louis Clark in education, David Petraeus in the military, Henry Ford in business, Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh in sports, and LAPD’s retired Deputy Chief Mike Hillman, and Pinal County, Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu in law enforcement. There are many others to be sure who can be added to this list — some I know, some of whom I have never heard. But why, when I ask members of an agency of over one thousand sworn personnel to give me the names of great leaders on their department, most can name only a handful? The answer: leadership is simple but not easy.
Amazon lists more than 62,000 book titles related to leadership — interestingly, they only have 11,000 book titles related to courage. Yet, without ever reading a book, we all recognize what good leadership is. Leaders have vision. Leaders lead from the front. Leaders say, “Follow me.” Good leaders are first good followers. Leaders take responsibility, they give credit to others, they praise in public and discipline in private, they hold themselves and their people accountable, they develop trust, they first seek to understand before being understood, they lead by example, they do the difficult right over the easy wrong, they are not afraid to be vulnerable, blah, blah, blah. Ok, we get it! Yet, we rarely see it. I’ve been in the offices of command personnel who have every Blanchard, Covey, and Drucker book on their shelves and yet they cannot lead the way out of a paper bag.
Interpersonal conflict — especially across rank structure is so scary that the aviation and medical communities have developed a structured team resource management communications system to, in part mitigate this apprehension. The five steps include an opening or attention-getter (often suggesting the use of the person’s first name,) a statement of a specific concern, a situation or problem statement, a solution statement or an offer of suggestions, followed by agreement or feedback. How might this method of intercourse be applied to our problem sergeant? Perhaps as follows:
Opening: “Sgt. [NAME].”
Concern: “I am concerned about your officious attitude towards your co-workers. You yourself have acknowledged your vindictive attitude.”
Problem: “This is creating an environment that is less than fully productive. Your peers and subordinates are experiencing unwarranted stress and prefer to avoid interaction with you.”
Solution: “Your technical skills are well above standard. However, your people skills need work. Let’s figure out together how we can make improvements in this area.”
Agreement: “So we have agreed that if after (taking this training/ reading this book/ working on your leadership skills) for the next four months, I see no improvement in your performance, you will be transferred from this special assignment.”
Obviously, this is a somewhat unrealistic and abbreviated dialogue, and it takes courage. However, it follows the communication pattern that I used with a subordinate — once I developed the requisite courage. I am like most others when it comes to conflict avoidance. I tend to avoid conflict (just ask my wife.) In this particular case, I failed to address a problem in a timely manner. Yet, when I finally did, it was a growth experience for me.
I was a sergeant in a specialized unit. I had a disruptive working relationship with a subordinate that was detrimental to the function of the team. Notice that I did not say that the officer was disruptive, only that the relationship was. This officer is very talented and motivated and has contributed greatly to the department. However, my supervisory and management style did not fit with his working style — and our goals for the unit were not complementary. As we all know, this is bound to happen at one time or another to each of us. In order to avoid the discomfort of confrontation, I tried weak and unsuccessful methods to get him to “come around.” I allowed this to continue far too long, causing consternation within the team and negatively affecting my ability to manage the other officers.
Once I made the sincere intent to generate the courage to address the issue head on, the resolution turned out to be easier than I imagined. As Ernest Hemingway wrote in Men at War, “Cowardice … is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.” I met with the officer and expressed my concern. We agreed that the stress we were both experiencing was negatively impacting the unit. I told him that unfortunately in a supervisor-subordinate relationship, if anyone is going to be stressed from here forward it was going to be the subordinate-him, and not the supervisor-me. After a discussion and consideration of several options, we reached an amicable agreement that it was best that he transfer from the unit. Our stress declined, our relationship actually improved, we worked together on a future project with no problem, and he continues to be a superbly productive employee. In the long run it was a win-win-win for him, for me, and for the organization.
The conceptual knowledge of leadership is quite simple and easy to understand. The actual application can be quite difficult. Often we must overcome many of our natural human tendencies. Borrowing from — and paraphrasing — Fox News commentator Brit Hume’s remarks on fairness, “Courageous leadership is not an attitude. It’s a professional skill that must be developed and exercised.” It starts, however with sincere intent: sincere intent to do the job, sincere intent to fulfill the mission, sincere intent to improve every day, sincere intent to be altruistic and empathetic, sincere intent to face your fears and develop your courage. Aristotle wrote, “We become brave by doing brave acts.”
Do you have the courage to be a great leader? Can you discipline an employee that mistreats his peers and subordinates because he is a vindictive bully? Are you willing to be an adult and take responsibility rather than blame your predecessor for everything that goes wrong? Will you take on a district attorney who wants to file charges against your officer for a tragic human error when it’s your policies, procedures, and training that are most culpable? Instead of defaulting to fear whenever an officer strikes, sprays, TASERs, or shoots a criminal, are you able to stand up, be brave, and say that you understand because you have actually been there before? Can you tell the public that officers, deputies, and agents will at times be required to use force — up to and including deadly force — not because they like it but because there are predators in our society that understand nothing less and whispering sweet nothings in their ears will not stop their violence?
If you believe — as many do — that we are experiencing a dearth of courageous leaders, then take action and promote. Accept greater responsibility with sincere intent — just keep in mind what Thomas Payne said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”