Leadership for driver trainers
By Travis Yates
Several years ago, I traveled with other instructors to a former Air Force base that had been converted to a driving facility. We were all away from home and living in what some would generously call a dorm room. We had volunteered to assist in teaching the school and we were all tired. It was well past midnight on a Thursday as we sat in an old classroom listening to a driving instructor.
Leadership is one of the most written and discussed topics within law enforcement. A Google search on “Police Leadership” will result in over twenty million web sites on the subject and agencies spend a tremendous amount of money on leadership training and consulting. Despite this, I often hear complaints from officers on how leadership is lacking in their driver training unit.
Leading a law enforcement driver training program is distinctively different than supervising or managing one. While I have served at three different supervisory ranks, I can honestly say that the promotion ceremony never made me smarter or taught leadership. Too often, we believe that because we sew stripes on our sleeves or place bars on our collar that we have somehow been changed and will become great leaders. This is not true and unfortunately traps many new supervisors into thinking that leading is the same as supervising or commanding.
A title or position does not make a leader. While there are times that leaders can have a position of authority, the actual authority does very little to make a leader. Leadership can never be forced, appointed, or assigned. Leadership is about influence and that is earned through years of effort.
How can you tell if someone is a leader or a manger? Managers are paid to maintain a direction or focus and rarely will ever change an organization. If you want to find out who your leaders are, look for the individuals that are changing that direction with vision and who the officers listen to. That may or may not be someone in a position of authority.
What does it take to lead a driver training program? While supervising one simply takes an appointment, true leadership in any training unit is both challenging and rewarding. How do the leaders in today’s law enforcement driver training units become leaders? Becoming these leaders did not happen overnight and by looking at the characteristics they possess, we can all strive to become the future leaders that
"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." -- Abraham Lincoln
Officers will generally tolerate honest mistakes but a lack of character will doom any potential leader. Character brings honesty, respect, ethics and trust. Each of them is essential for any true leader. These characteristics must be above reproach and without them, any chance of leading will never occur. Driver training instruction consists of scores, times and an observation of the actions of the student. Nothing should be overlooked and students should always be treated fairly and with respect. Leaders display this character not only at the driving track but at home as well.
The development of relationships is essential in leading. Instructors and officers will do what they are told but they will not buy into the program or ideas unless they believe in what you are doing. Individuals will believe in people that they know. A leader will go out of their way to get to know their officers. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once said that it is easy to attend happy occasions like birthdays but the sign of a leader is when they attend solemn functions such as visiting sick colleagues or attending funerals. Relationships to instructors and officers go much further than the day to day activity that comes with the job. There is not an easy way to build relationships other than time and patience. To be a leader, you must have followers and no one will follow unless there is a relationship present.
Instructors and officers that take risks are the potential leaders in your training unit. These are not risks that pertain to physical safety but rather behavior and actions that are not always comfortable. The act of change is often risky and the only way to improve a unit is to move towards constant change. Whether it is an officer telling their chief that they need tire deflation devices and money should not be the excuse or a driving instructor introducing an innovative technique that can help save lives, these acts are risks that true leaders will take.
While knowledge is not a guarantee of a leader, the lack of it will prevent any type of leadership from occurring. This is why it is often difficult for an appointed manager to lead a driver training unit. Instructors and officers will not follow someone that doesn’t have the technical skills it takes to do what they do. A leader doesn’t need to be the best trainer or best driver, but they must have the basic knowledge that it takes for them to actually perform the functions that they are asking others to do.
Leaders are no doubt humble. Leadership is about following and officers will not follow those that brag and boast. A leader that recognizes their faults and does not try to hide them will have a following of willing participants to accomplish the mission. Some of the greatest leaders I know display this trait.
Vision is the key to the success of the training unit. Training must always be adapting and changing to the needs of the officers. The maneuvers taught a year ago may need to change depending on the issues facing the department. It takes hard work to have vision and that is why we see so many units stagnate. Leaders have a vision and they pursue that vision with every ounce of energy they have.
Leaders should never stop learning. When it comes to teaching and driving, there is always something else to learn and master. Leaders will never stop their pursuit of education. Whether it is attending a driving school, reading books or going back to college, leaders will be pursuing it.
A model of leadership
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Dale Beaty is a legend in the field of emergency vehicle operations training. He displays all of the characteristics discussed in this article plus many more. The relationships that he has built and the character he displays each day speak for themselves. His humility will never permit him to tell anyone about the paraplegic teenager he taught to drive or that has been invited to all 50 states to teach. He took his skills and expanded them into school bus driver training and his early vision of driver training transformed more curriculums around the country than we will ever know.
What makes instructors stay up until the early morning hours just to speak to Trooper Beaty? Why would stunt driver Bobby Ore or music superstar Reba McEntire stop by just to see a Trooper in Oklahoma living in an abandoned Air Force Base? The answer is simple: LEADERSHIP.
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