Police Training

June 03, 2014

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Want to improve your leadership skills? Ask yourself this question

Submitted by:
Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Editor in Chief

Before going any further, get a pen and a piece of paper. You’ll need it for the exercise below. 

There are about 10,000 books out there on leadership. Most everyone in a law enforcement leadership position has read at least ten of them — typically many more than that. 

One book on leadership has been sitting on my bedside table since it came out a couple months ago. It’s called Leadership in the Shadows, and it’s by my friend and PoliceOne Contributor SGM Kyle Lamb (ret.) of Viking Tactics. In my opinion, this book is an absolute MUST for law enforcement and military leaders (as well as leaders in just about any other industry!). 

An Invaluable Sell-Assessment
There are countless passages in Leadership in the Shadows that made me stop reading, break out a note pad, and write down some thoughts of how I might apply Kyle’s thoughts on leadership to my day-to-day work. Here, I’ll share just one such pearl of wisdom — more will follow in coming weeks and months. 

In Chapter 5 of the book, Kyle asks the reader to think about past leaders in their lives — they don’t necessarily have to be those who’ve led you, just a few leaders to whom you’ve had some exposure — and consider what made them a good leader or a bad leader. 

If they were a good leader, what trait made them so? If they were a bad leader, what was the culprit? 

Now, try to narrow that characteristic into a single word. 

Got it? 

Good, because here’s where things become really interesting.

As he opens up Chapter 6, Kyle asks, “If you were to pick one leadership trait that was the most important to you, what would it be?”

Go ahead and think on that for a moment. Write down your word. 

What Does Your Word Tell You? 
The first time you do this, consider making it sort of a rapid-word-association exercise. I did, and I immediately had a word — passionate

Next, take some time (days, if needs be) to consider the the question in a slower, more contemplative, manner — using this question to give serious thought to whether or not that particular word is complete and accurate. “Is that really my word, or is there another?” 

In doing so, I’ve come up with others — committed, for example — but I keep coming back to passionate.

What about you? Do other words come to mind that are more suitable to you, your beliefs, your leadership philosophy?

Further, do your best to determine if your word is a help or a hindrance to your ability to lead (the answer is probably that it’s a little of both!). 

What are the ramifications of that? What do you need to change? 

“I use this drill every time I talk to military or LE,” Kyle told me as I prepared this article. “It gives good insight.”

Kyle then told me that the biggest surprise he’s had (so far!) when doing this exercise was a student drew a picture of his word. 

“Buoyant, waves on the bottom with highs and lows that LE leaders have to deal with. Highs would be a warrant service, lows would be the paperwork after the warrant service. Bottom line is we always have to stay on top during the good and bad times — always leading no matter the weather or waves,” Kyle explained. 

In Chapter 6 of Leadership in the Shadows, Kyle shares an excellent story of how he shared this question with Task Force Commander General Stan McChrystal during a deployment in Iraq. I won’t share that here (buy the book!) but I will directly quote more passage from this chapter.

Closing out the chapter, Kyle wrote: 

“My word is credibility. That doesn’t mean your word is wrong, or mine is right, this is simply my word. I chose credibility for several reasons. First, the age-old question is this: Are leaders made or born? In America they are most definitely made. Chicken or the egg, what came first? Who cares, just cook mine over medium. A lot of good air is wasted on the discussion of leaders being made or born when it is clearly not possible for a leader to be born.

“You are not born with credibility. You must earn and build your credibility by becoming accountable, listening to your people, and, most importantly, performing on a daily basis. That credibility will be earned through performance and life leadership experiences. Secondly, I want to work for a leader that is credible. The more leadership credibility someone demonstrates, the more his or her subordinates will expect it; and the more fragile that leadership becomes in terms of it being lost in an instant.

“By constantly demonstrating leadership, you are constantly raising your subordinates’ expectations.”

Starting an Important Conversation
Kyle contends (and I completely agree) that this simple question — ‘What is the most important leadership trait to you?’ — “can result not only in a great discussion with your people, but it will give you, as their leader, the insight to know what is important to them. You are here to lead people. You are not here to threaten or use your power and position to attain their best performance. Now that you know what is important in their eyes, you might just happen to know what needs to be done to satisfy their needs.”

Regular readers of this space know that I’ve interviewed Kyle on numerous occasions about everything from the value of using checklists to reinforce your adherence to agency policies and procedures, to the difference between movement fighting and formation fighting

Having now read Leadership in the Shadows, I’ve got a few more topics in mind for the next time we get together to videotape some conversations.

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