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What really makes someone a leader?

We see, hear, and read a lot about “leadership” in this profession and frankly, I think the term is overused and badly abused. So many people confuse being “in charge” with being a leader, but just because you hold rank doesn’t mean you’re a leader. Similarly, reading a couple of management books, putting together a slick PowerPoint, and coming up with a catchy course title certainly doesn’t qualify you to train others about “leadership.”

So, what really makes someone a “leader?” If you have influence over others, you should consider yourself a leader and act accordingly, but it goes much further. Below are few elements of what “true leadership” means to this profession — or to any organization that wants to succeed — and I’m guessing each of you can suggest a few more.

Real-Life Role Modeling
I recently read an article by my friend Chief Jeff Chudwin about the importance of body armor and why he has made it mandatory for his personnel to wear at all times. Wearing your vest is a no-brainer, but over 200,000 American police officers don’t even own their own body armor and many departments are too small or too poor to be able to purchase a vest for each officer. But what really struck me about that article was this:

“When I go out, I wear mine. You can’t have two standards, one for bosses and one for officers,” Jeff said.

What a simple but priceless statement for a chief to make, and what a great way to model behavior for everyone in the organization. A true leader doesn’t just talk about it, he or she does it.

Ethics and Integrity
That same “double standard” that Chief Chudwin spoke of as it relates to body armor is often applied in police organizations by so-called leaders. A chief who initiates a “no gratuities” rule and disciplines officers who take that free cup of coffee shouldn’t brag about the great discount he got on his new car at the local Chevy dealer. Yet, some do.

The Chief, Captain, Lieutenant, or other so-called leader who preaches off-duty survival to his officers but for whatever reason decides to not carry an off-duty firearm of his own isn’t a leader. He’s what the kids call a “poser.” Ethics is doing the right thing, all the time, every time. Integrity is recognizing the difference between right and wrong in every situation and acting on those differences consistently, regardless of how you are impacted personally. Real leaders don’t take advantage of their rank or their office, and they realize that they must set the ethical standards, not just preach about them to others.

Communication Skills
Real leaders communicate. They don’t build silos — they break them down. They talk to the janitor as well as to their second in command. They know what’s going on in every division of the organization because they not only ask, they also listen to the answer. They allow open communication, and more importantly, they participate in it. Real leaders don’t “kill the messenger” who brings bad news or an unpopular opinion, and they keep their personnel informed. A true leader also uses the words “I” and “me” prudently — a narcissistic manager is tough to work for, put your people first.

A true leader recognizes that communication isn’t just talk. Ask yourself, “What do I communicate to others, not just verbally, but also non-verbally? Do I appear confident but approachable? Does my body language fit the situation and match my words?”

And don’t just ask yourself those questions. Listen to your honest answers, because it’s in those answers you’ll find some excellent ways in which you can work toward making yourself a true leader.

Unafraid of Conflict
Just about everyone has sat in a staff meeting and watched as the highest ranking officer made some bone-headed decision and yet no one (including you!) had the guts to say, “Hey boss, I think that’s a lousy idea.”

Why do we let this happen? Because many of us work for managers who just don’t deal well with conflict. Law enforcement agencies are paramilitary structures, so oftentimes we view disagreement as insubordination. True leaders know that an organization full of “yes-people” is a dysfunctional one — one that won’t grow. Conflict must be accepted, embraced, and encouraged for an organization to thrive. Patrick Lencioni talks about conflict in his outstanding management parable “Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” and I encourage everyone to read the book and bring Lencioni’s principles to your team.

Willing to Take Risks
In his outstanding training course “The Winning Mind,” PoliceOne’s own Dave Smith talks about “No-Men” and “The Law of Delay.” It is so much easier for a police manager to say “no” to a new idea, a new concept, or a new general order than it is to say “yes.” By saying “no,” risk is eliminated; and if we keep doing things “the way we’ve always done them” we can’t be blamed when the new idea turns out to be a lousy one.

In law enforcement we are always trying to minimize and manage physical and legal risk, but make sure you challenge yourself to take some administrative risks. And don’t fall into the trap of “information paralysis” where you just keep analyzing an issue or an idea but never actually make a decision. There is always going to be more data to be gathered, but true leaders are decisive and willing to get out of their comfort zone to benefit the organization.

Admitting “I Was Wrong”
Many trainers, supervisors, and managers hate to admit that they’ve made a mistake. They often view it as a weakness, and hope that if they ignore (or deny) an error or a wrong-doing on their part, everyone else will too. It’s hard to say “I’m wrong” or “I’m sorry” when you’re the boss, but the impact it has on a team is enormous. Everyone makes mistakes, but in police work our errors can be costly, embarrassing, or even deadly, so we have a tendency to do anything to avoid admitting them. If you are able to face your own shortcomings or screw ups with honesty and humility, you’ll help your personnel learn to do the same.

As a leader, it’s your job to not only admit a mistake — you also have to help others deal with theirs. Role modeling proper conduct is one of the best ways to do that. Most of our errors can be used as teaching tools and most of our mistakes can be rectified. As my old lieutenant used to say, “If it didn’t come out of the end of a gun, we can probably fix it.” Keep a relaxed attitude about mistakes once they happen, learn from them, and move on, don’t berate people and don’t hold a grudge.

As we talk about in the Street Survival Seminar, you don’t need stars, bars, or stripes to be a leader in your department or in your community. This about what true leadership means to you, your team, and to the people you serve.

Share your thoughts with us at Police One — we can’t wait to hear from you!

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