Put ego aside, forget your career, and be a leader
By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)
I wrote an article in April of last year (following up on it again in August) that referenced a survey I’ve distributed to law enforcement officers around the country over a ten year period. There were 14 questions in the survey but for the purpose of the article I particularly addressed question #13 which was:
“What is the most important thing to your immediate supervisor in reference to your day-to-day activity and behavior?”
I noted that of the approximately 2,000 respondents, 65 percent of them answered that question with some variation on this statement:
“Don’t cause any problems.”
Since it was an open-ended question and didn’t offer multiple choice options other responses included but were not limited to the following: “No Beefs,” “Stay out of trouble,” “Don’t cause me any headaches,” “Zero complaints,” “Don’t make me talk to the public,” and “I’m here for eight hours and I don’t want you to cause me any work.”
I think you get the picture. The point is, 65 percent of the officers taking to the streets each day believed that their True Mission was to avoid pissing people off. Knowing this, I ask the following question to officers who attend my classes for the Street Survival Seminar: “What is the best way to stay out of trouble?”
The answer, in unison, is always the same: “Don’t do anything.”
I have my Masters Degree. I only bring that up because in order to achieve that exalted level of education I had to take a “stats” class — having taken (and passed) that class, I know my survey doesn’t meet the necessary criteria to be deemed “reliable.” Indeed, it’s flawed from a random distribution sampling perspective. Therefore police administrators can argue the results and refuse to believe that the majority (nearly two thirds!) of our police officers are hitting the streets everyday thinking that they need to avoid problems in order to keep their supervisors content.
But hundreds upon hundreds of face-to-face conversations with officers all over this country about the survey question have convinced me that the results are frighteningly accurate. I hear horror stories from line officers about supervisors in their organizations all of the time.
Before I go any further, let me give you some context. I’ve been a cop for 29 years and for 18 of those years I’ve been a supervisor — five as a Sergeant and 13 as a Lieutenant. I understand management and leadership principles. I study the theories, I read the books. I taught for Northwestern’ University’s School of Police Staff and Command, and continue to teach leadership classes to this day. I have taught for Casinos, Restaurants, Police Departments, Fire Departments, Government administrators, and hospitals. I even taught 25 doctors with my partner Tim Goergen (that’s teaching partner not my life partner). None of this makes me an expert but, I do firmly believe my experience gives me the right to say with some certainty that a gap exists between many police officers and their respective supervisors. Further, I know whose fault it is when these problems do exist.
It’s the Supervisors’ fault.
Now I already know the reaction I’m gonna get from a couple of thousand management-types reading this. Their complaints will include many of the following:
“You don’t understand my department. I know I’m a (Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Mayor’s brother-in-law) but I actually have no power, my boss is the idiot. I have no control. I march to his orders.”
“You don’t understand my shift. I just happen to have the most uncontrollable bunch of asshole, whiney, cry-baby, do-nuthin’ morons on the planet.”
“It’s his fault.”
“It’s her fault.”
“It’s their fault.”
“I’m not allowed to be effective.”
“I don’t have time to be effective.”
“I get no support from the administration.”
“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...”
Bottom line, if the people in your span of control are out of control, fail to perform, cause problems, whine, and bitch and moan to the point of ineffectiveness, it’s your fault. Sorry, but it’s true. It has nothing to do with your astrological moons being aligned in a negative planetary configuration. It’s not because you happen to have the worst shift in the state. It’s not because your boss is an egomaniacal bully (he or she may be that, but that’s not an excuse for the behavior of the people who work for you). It is because you are not taking charge, not setting the tone, and not creating the communal spirit necessary for your span of control to succeed and more importantly; stay safe.
Excuses are abundant among managers — I hear them all the time. But I also see how supervisors destroy cohesiveness and allow their petty proclivities to erode morale to the point that officers focus more on the supervisory problem than on law enforcement and safe police practices.
An officer I met a few years ago (he’s now a Sergeant working for a Lieutenant with whom he is having some difficulty) recently told me a story that is not particularly unique. I have experienced, and heard of, similar stories countless times. Obviously, I can’t share his department as he is currently working for the subject of his story chronicled here.
This particular lieutenant commanded a shift of nearly 20 people. The members of that shift collectively and openly wrote a letter to the Chief of Police complaining about the way the lieutenant treated them. From their perspective — and the perspective of any rational person — he was treating them like preschoolers.
For example, one of his favorite amusements involved making members of his shift read aloud, in roll call, highlighted sections of newspaper articles; articles by the way that were of absolutely no interest to the humiliated police officers. In addition, this lieutenant mowed down forests of trees writing pointless memos, tracked officers like a bloodhound in order to uncover minor infractions, and passed out training bulletins that made sense only to the lieutenant. He would yell, throw things, and generally overreact to minor mistakes, miscues, blunders, and boo-boos. He was condescending and belittling. He not only wanted the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, he wanted them dotted and crossed his way.
He never seemed to “get it.” He never got the fact that the people who worked for him were out on the street with guns, making life and death decisions. He never got that he became the overwhelming focus of his shift. And he never connected inactivity, poor police practices, and broken morale with his behavior. As long as his files were in order, his pens were arranged according to color on his desk, and he had people in his sights, he was a content and successful manager.
According to this Sergeant, what struck him as odd was the reaction by the Lieutenant about the letter sent to the Chief. Apparently, his way of dealing with the embarrassment was simply to deny responsibility, blame his personnel, and bemoan the luck he had for randomly drawing a shift of malcontents from the pool of officers in his department.
Orders from the Chief stopped him from spending untold hours highlighting newspaper articles and he limited his tirades for awhile. However, his manic OCD personality couldn’t be totally controlled and soon his dysfunctional behavior reemerged in other forms. In short, he soon returned to the ineffective and hopeless manager he always was.
This is the conundrum for the Sergeant assigned to this broken shift. He describes the Lieutenant as “more than clueless when it comes to people, he is actually toxic. And it doesn’t seem to be noticeable to the powers that be. They just let him continue. Every time the ‘guys’ raise an issue about the Lieutenant he insists that his officers are whiners who hate to work. However, any complaint by a citizen about one of the officers becomes a major issue with my Lieutenant and he looks to hang the subject of the complaint if he doesn’t like that officer. So none of the guys want to put themselves in a position where a complaint might be filed. There is no trust. How can I build a team in this environment?”
My answer: “Um, dunno.”
Hey look, I’m not particularly stupid or naive. I know that every shift, unit, division, (whatever) has its share of problem children. So what? An effective leader deals with delinquents and refuses to allow those people to infect the entire team.
Is it easy? No. Is it impossible? Also, no.
What sometimes makes supervising human beings difficult is knowing when to get involved and when not to, being able to recognize the difference between a true problem and a minor annoyance. I have about 20 people on my shift and balancing the personalities is an interesting juggling act. They bitch and moan about each other but I also know that they are concerned about safety and will put their lives on the line for their brother and sister officers. It is important for supervisors to understand that the people that work for you, the people that strap on the gun, the people that put their lives on the line, absolutely have to believe they can count on at least a few things: quality training, involved supervisors who will support them, and a real mission to accomplish.
What is impossible to calculate is how many police officers have been murdered because they hesitated when they should have acted. In the Street Survival Seminar we discuss this phenomenon at length and illustrate the point through the use of real-life videos. The question for every supervisor out there is this: Have you done your best to create a communal spirit that promotes effective law enforcement, service to the public, and officer safety as a team value? Or have you created a climate that is so toxic that your officers are apprehensive, cynical, and afraid to act? Afraid to act because of their fear of you: afraid of you to the point that they put their lives, as well as the lives of others, at risk.
If you think that last paragraph is overly dramatic grandstanding you are wrong. If you think it was written to inspire a level of self-evaluation — Bingo! I start my Leadership Seminars out by making some simple, yet harsh, statements and asking a few pointed questions. Those include the following:
Some of you are lousy, ineffective supervisors. Who in here fits that description?
If you are a bad supervisor, change. If you can’t, quit. If you want to change, know that you can. You simply have to decide.
All of this is true. I’m not saying I’m the best leader out there or even the best in my department. I’m on 29 years now, the next phase of my life is coming, and I’m distracted. This certainly affects my work. However, I believe that the guys that work with me know that I care about them and value their service and their safety.
Learning leadership skills is not necessarily difficult. However, accepting that your position as a leader only exists in order to assist line level officers in accomplishing the organizational mission is tougher to swallow. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the tone you set may be the difference between life and death. It is time for all of us in leadership positions to accept this and act accordingly. Put ego aside. Forget your career. Set the tone for the people who look to you for guidance. Shame on you if you don’t.
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