Caring for the organizational spirit
Ed Note: This article originally appeared in Executive Excellence magazine and is reprinted by permission of the author. The words here, and within the pages of the dozen or so publications listed in the bibliography that follows, remain as valid today as when they were first published 16 years ago. As the 115th annual IACP commences, we hope this article will give PoliceOne readers – those who are able to attend and the many thousands of officers who aspire to leadership posts who are not present in San Diego this week – some valuable food for thought.
Captain Donald D. Brooks exited the Marine Corps helicopter that had ferried him from headquarters, Chu Lai, to a sun-soaked hill just east of a group of villages in Vietnam known as Tan Hy. As he did so, he looked into the faces of nearly 150 Marines grouped to welcome him as their new commander. They were not particularly happy faces. They were the faces of a group that had been subjected for the past six months to the petty tirades of a company commander who was more concerned about his barracks reputation than he was the safety, welfare, and morale of his charges.
Brooks knew this. He knew he was inheriting an experienced, well-trained but dispirited company. The helicopter strained to rotate from the landing pad and Brooks braced himself for the inevitable backwash from the blades. As the helicopter faded from sound and then sight, he relaxed, moving easily among the men who at first parted and then surrounded him. He stopped once, found himself in the center of the grouping and slowly turned, saying in a supportive tone so all could hear, "Men, why don't you remove those utility jackets and let the sun get to those body sores?"
The inevitable Vietnam body sore was an enigma that eventually attacked and settled in the system of every field Marine. Corpsmen and medics had treated it with everything from iodine to wintergreen, never finding a cure. The open sores responded to salt water, fresh air and sun but one never rid their body of the sores without daily showers and treatment. Sun and fresh air were plentiful, few had access to salt water and rarely could one depend on shower facilities. The simple but effective relief was fresh air and sun. Without this minimum remedy the sores festered, bothered and hampered every field Marine and eventually became an accepted reality. The previous commander forbade the removal of utility jackets when in the company perimeter even though they were miles from the prying eyes of command personnel. He feared an un-military appearance should some unexpected visitor suddenly arrive.
Brooks, before his arrival had properly assessed the fading spirit of his new command. He recognized the over-supervision of the past commander as the cause and, in one sentence, won the fading hearts of those he would so successfully lead.
Brooks had done the right thing by failing to do the thing right. He allowed the removal of the utility jackets. This was the first of many such reversals in procedure from his predecessor's rigid and petty style. In just a matter of days, this dispirited group of Marines turned back two separate groups of Viet Cong in a daring midnight raid. Incoming mortars and the grenades of two infiltrators began a night long battle that required vigilance until sunlight. The sun found a vanquished enemy while Brooks' company escaped with just five superficially wounded who refused evacuation. It was the same group of men in the same area with the same NCOs and junior officers who shared the same mission. Only one variable had changed, the leadership. Within days it was a different company because of the mature wisdom of one man, their new leader.
As a young Marine NCO attached to that company, I never forgot the experience. It stunned me while at the same time capturing me. How can what one person does in a leadership role reverse a whole pattern of performance of so many? Since that time I have watched the same phenomena in police departments all over the United States.
Charles Garfield has argued in his work on human performance that "People are not born to inaction; they learn it." I would add that we teach inaction in our organizations. He has further stated that, "Peak performers are not average people with something added but average people with nothing taken away."
That translates to the less those around me take from me the more productive I will be, the more I will realize my potential, the more I can give back. Brooks' predecessor by his petty concerns robbed his subordinates of their potential and eventually their spirit. Brooks restored both in just days.
Peter Drucker completed a study of the Los Angeles Police Department at the request of the then police chief, Chief Davis, more than 20 years ago that was never published. After some six weeks of talking with officers throughout the department he made several observations. One of the most salient and insightful was that, "You police are so concerned with doing things right that you fail to do the right things." While initially the statement may sound like a riddle it is amazingly accurate when one analyzes it in the wake of Warren Bennis's determinations about super-leaders. Bennis concluded that "Managers do things right while leaders do the right thing." It would appear that what Drucker was really saying is that police management is so concerned with managing that they fail to lead.
Kelling and Wilson concluded much the same thing in an article dealing with community oriented policing when they stated that "Police management is driven more by the constraints of the job than we are by the goals of the job." We are so concerned with avoiding wrong that we often fail to do what's right. It's a defensive posture like a coach trying to protect a lead so they try not to lose rather then marshaling their resources to win. Ray Meyer, famed basketball coach at DePaul, once commented after a losing game which ended one of the nation's longing winning streaks, "Good, now we can start playing to win rather than playing not to lose." This posture of trying not to lose seems to rob the participants and their organizations of their potential and then eventually their spirit.
If one looks at much of the current leadership literature, what Drucker and Bennis both concluded makes more sense. The following is a compilation of numerous authors and their observations as it relates to the difference between management and leadership.
From this list we start to see a pattern of roles that the leader plays. They seem to always do the right thing at the right time. They are like great coaches who don't actually handle the ball, score the touchdown or put the ball through the hoop. They prepare their people, develop them, challenge them, encourage them and touch them with their vision and the passion for that vision. As Garfield says, "They give their people a place to stand, so like Archimedes they can move the world." Leaders know that if they do these things many of the management concerns of programs, balanced budgets and profits will result. Disney said, "Do what you love and the money will come." Wasn't he really saying find your passion and follow it? Leaders help us identify, define and fan our passions for life.
Max Depree, in his book Leadership Is an Art, talked about organizations having both a body and a spirit. After reading his book one concludes that you can have an organization that from all appearances is working but whose spirit is dead. We've all worked in places like that before. The lights are on in the building, people come to work, are paid--there is movement and the appearance of a job being done. A closer look reveals that in reality there is nothing happening in that organization. It is just a body that is breathing but in reality it is comatose.
Conversely, we find other organizations that are housed in substandard surroundings, who have a woefully strained budget and few resources but the whole place just hums with activity and, to a person, they have a passion for life. The people have missions that are meaningful, they are challenged, have respect for one another and accomplish remarkable things even under the worst of conditions. They are like the character in Shaw's Man and Superman who asserted, "Life's no brief candle to me. It is like a splendid torch which I have got hold of for just a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the next generation." What makes the difference? In one the body is functioning but the spirit is dead while the reverse is true of the second, the body is crippled but the spirit is alive and healthy. And it is the intangible spirit of a group that causes a business or organization to grow and reach its potential.
Could we then conclude that the first organization is one that reflects management while the second reflects leadership? Could we move even one step further and conclude that the role of the manager is to care for the body of the organization while the role of the leader is to care for the spirit of the organization? Maybe we could even conclude further that great leadership is capable of doing both!
You see the additional observations that Drucker shared with the LAPD were that "Police are so concerned with doing things right you promote for the absence of wrongdoing rather than for the presence of initiative, innovation, and leadership. As a result, bright, young police officers recognize that success within the organization can be found by occupying high profile low risk positions." If this is accurate, then organizations will have a tendency to promote insecure, shallow, one-dimensional leadership. Leadership that can turn on the lights in their buildings but turn the lights off in their people.
Organizations spend a great deal of time and effort to select and recruit potential peak performers. Why after just two or three years do we often find a dispirited, cynical employee instead of a peak performer? The only explanation is that something has taken place in the process of their work, something has taken place in the organization, to alter their beliefs, attitudes and feelings. An unknown French writer once observed that, "When the police function is assumed by a person of intelligence and of heart, by someone of humanity and of integrity, then nothing is more useful... nothing is more vital and nothing is more exciting." An officer, one of six accused of beating a known drug dealer to death who had anonymously threatened one of the group defended himself by saying, "I'm not an animal, I'm not a supervisor's nightmare, I'm a professional, I'm a good cop." He then added, "Do you have any idea how tough our job is? You know, we can't win -- we just can't win." What happened to him, one who once was so vital, so useful and so exciting?
Looking around the nation we see our officers involved in long, inconclusive and often frustrated struggles with their criminal public, the criminal justice system and all too often their own administrations. I have observed that many suffer a death of the spirit which is the result of the contradiction of their courage on the one hand and the obvious futility of their effort on the other. The officer quoted above is just such an officer. "We can't win -- we just can't win." is such a revealing statement. His spirit dead, he and five more like him are accused of taking into their hands the very law that they swore to uphold. How sad for us all.
This changing nation and this changing world will require even more of our future generation of police officers. We can no longer seek out and promote one dimensional, high profile, low-risk leadership. They must prepare themselves, their careers paths reflecting the badly needed balance while, as Keegan says, "Playing the hero no more." And, as MacCoby points out, we cannot afford to educate this generation of leadership, they are going to have to learn on the job taking responsibility for their own development.
We must have leaders who understand that the most important contribution they make to their people and their organization is the care of the spirit of both. Drucker has said that "Doing the right thing is what makes knowledge work effective." We might also add that it nourishes the spirit as well.
As leaders, we must remind ourselves that contained within every dilemma with which we are faced, there is a two-pronged question. One prong contains the managerial issues and the second prong the leadership issues. The management prong is doing the thing right, while the leadership prong is doing the right thing. Leaders understand this and when doing the thing right flies in the face of doing the right thing they know how to put the right spin on this contention and bring the situation to a successful conclusion. That is what sets them apart. Police are very adept at identifying the managerial issues. We have not been taught how to identify and consider the leadership issues. We must learn how. To simply make a decision based on the managerial concerns can rob an organization of spirit. Insurance companies that have settled suits involving police officers, even knowing the officers performed properly, have made a decision based solely on the managerial considerations. They have ignored the leadership issues that affect the spirit of the organization and the officers to say nothing of the long term reputation of their company. Identifying the managerial issues is easy. Identifying the leadership issues is difficult. It takes time and once identified the leadership issues often take moral courage to pursue.
I would like to add a final observation. The human spirit while intangible is remarkable. History and sport have proven that time and again. I have traveled to nearly every state in the United States and worked with thousands of police officers. They are a remarkable people. For all they see and experience they are like Robert Service's ideal in his poem "The Law of the Yukon," "not men and women who are weaklings, subtle, suave and mild but men and women with the hearts of vikings and the simple faith of a child." They have each taught me something. However, their greatest legacy to me, to us all for that matter, is that the human spirit cannot be plundered. It cannot be taken away. You can only give it up.
I have often wondered what happened to Donald Brooks. What he did in his first introduction as the leader of that Marine infantry company was only the first of many subtle and intangible illustrations of "doing the right thing" that made a significant difference in the performance of those young Marines whose lives he touched. I have been even more curious about what would have happened had he not assumed command of that company. Lacking the confidence, commitment and trust that organizational spirit provides to a group, one cannot help but wonder how many lives might have been altered or even lost had Brooks not taken command.
In this age of empowerment we must begin developing leadership at the lowest levels of the organization. We will have to find immediate ways to teach leadership on the job for time will not allow solely for traditional classroom instruction. For those who truly seek to be leaders, they must pursue mentors who are capable of role modeling successful traits. They must network with peers who, like themselves, thirst to give back so "the torch might burn brighter for future generations." They must become demanding students of leadership who seek out benchmark organizations and monomaniacal leaders consumed with the passion for providing answers and direction back to their profession. This generation and subsequent generations of leaders must assume responsibility for their development, recognizing that they must take on a career-long if not a life-long obligation to never stop learning about and defining leadership.
We must realize that regardless of the role that we fulfill as leader in our organizations, we hold the key to the spirit of that group. You hold the key to your own spirit as well. Take care of both. You do that by leading, by "doing the right thing." We are beginning to realize that there are two prongs to every dilemma, a management prong and a leadership prong. A leader must concern themselves with both. By concerning themselves with both, defining both, and addressing both a leader cares for both and thereby takes care of the organizational spirit. Doing so is like fresh air and sun healing aggravating sores.
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