Lessons in Leadership: Is the man or the mission more important?

Leaders must create a culture that focuses first and foremost on the safety of their officers


This article is part of a 10-part Lessons in Leadership series by Rich Emberlin. Click here to access all of Rich’s leadership lessons.

Policing has historically been a job; today it is recognized as a genuine profession. Today’s police force is comprised of highly trained, exceptionally smart individuals who possess specialized knowledge and skills. Whether it’s a police chief overseeing a department or a patrol officer responding to 9-1-1 calls, law enforcement leaders exist in all ranks of our profession.

Lessons in Leadership is a 10-part series covering the most important principles I learned during my nearly 30-year career with the Dallas Police Department. From explosive confrontations to quiet defining moments, there’s no shortage of wisdom to be earned in one of the world’s most dangerous professions.

Right before I joined SWAT, I heard a story that had become infamous around the department halls. Operators were being briefed for a warrant execution on suspected dope dealers; in this case, a militant group of bikers not afraid of confrontations with the police. The lead sergeant, an Army veteran, solemnly told the group, “This place is heavily barricaded, and I expect to lose a few of you today.”

Leaders must create a culture that focuses first and foremost on the safety of their officers. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Leaders must create a culture that focuses first and foremost on the safety of their officers. (Photo/PoliceOne)

As the SWAT team members picked their jaws up off the floor, the captain dismissed the sergeant from the briefing, killed the operation on the spot and declared, “The man is more important than the mission.” Those words stuck with me ever since as a succinct, yet powerful, leadership philosophy.

Is the man or the mission more important?

Police officers are killed at an alarming rate in this country. Whether it’s fueled by a lack of understanding about the profession, or the desensitization that results from unrealistic Hollywood portrayals and news headlines, there’s a societal expectation that cops should lay down their lives on a daily basis, no matter what kind of call we’re responding to. We do accept a certain amount of risk with the job, but I’m certain the operators in that briefing room didn’t agree with or appreciate the sergeant’s presumption of their imminent death. They would agree that we’re supposed to go home to our families every night.

I knew I’d go into harm’s way and potentially take a bullet to save someone’s life at some point in my career, just like every other police officer. That’s where priorities of life come in. Law enforcement officers learn about this hierarchy that answers the question, who should live and in what order? Victims represent the highest priority, followed by friendlies (innocent bystanders), first responders/police, and lastly, suspects.

Priorities of life are in play in virtually all police encounters. It’s important to deploy the right strategy for each scenario. A warrant execution can easily be called off if evidence suggests it is strategically or tactically flawed. If it’s a hostage rescue or active shooter situation, officers must deploy a strategy that is infinitely more dangerous. In those situations, the mission does become more important than the man.

When to kill an operation

Police commanders can’t afford to make poor decisions that will cost people their lives, whether it’s due to inexperience, a cowboy mentality, or a naïve assumption that people will do what we say because, “We’re the police.”

Leaders must create a culture that focuses first and foremost on the safety of their officers. This includes declaring an operation a no-go when circumstances change unfavorably or present an unacceptable level of risk.

My SWAT team had spent 24 hours planning a drug warrant execution. We staged at a fire station not far from the suspect’s home. Sixteen operators waited in two raid vans and prepared to make the hit. As I settled into the passenger seat next to my sergeant, new intel came in from one of our undercover narcotics detectives. He had just visited the target location to buy drugs and reported that the suspect appeared extremely skittish and thought his location was about to be assaulted. Apparently, one of his buddies had seen us staging, alerting him to our presence.

Our sergeant said, “In that case, we better hurry up and get over there.” Those words I’d heard years ago – the man is more important than the mission – went through my head.  I took off my helmet, yanked off my gloves and said, “Are you kidding? I’m not going. He knows we’re coming. He’s probably barricading the place now. This is SWAT 101 – do not show up if they know you’re coming. Remember the Branch Davidians in Waco? Taking this guy off the streets is important, but are we really willing to get hammered in an ambush?”

This was a classic example of man vs. mission and fortunately, our sergeant was reasonable enough to realize the danger in proceeding as planned. In his defense, he was a relatively new sergeant in SWAT and willing to listen to advice. He called off the operation, and a few weeks later, we eventually took down our guy.

I have worked with supervisors who let their egos direct their decision-making, rather than common sense. Officers working under these types of leaders need to speak up. Voice your concerns and escalate the matter up the chain of command if necessary. This isn’t snitching – it’s about keeping your fellow officers alive.

If the suspect has a tactical advantage, take him down at a different venue that poses less risk. There’s no reason to show up on his home turf if he goes to the market on Tuesday afternoons and you can safely isolate him in the parking lot. Even if your operation is about to get underway, it’s never too late to call it off, send your troops home and wait for a more favorable tactical advantage. 

Reduce risk if time permits

When time and circumstances dictate, law enforcement officers should go on the offensive. But if there’s an opportunity to step back and generate a plan of attack, that’s a better alternative. Each time my team responded to a barricaded subject situation, one of the first things we would do is put an emergency assault team in place. Six or eight experienced operators would stage near a point of entry and go in immediately if ordered by the command post. With this countermeasure in place, we bought ourselves some time to step back and devise an action plan – turn off the power, kill the phone lines and gather intel on the suspect.

Good leaders educate their troops about risk assessment and how to apply it in the field. Officers must always be ready to respond under less-than-ideal circumstances. During the recent shooting at Great Mills High School in Maryland, School Resource Officer Blaine Gaskill responded to the scene in less than a minute, entered the building by himself and engaged the suspect. His courage and quick actions undoubtedly saved countless lives. The St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office should be proud to have Officer Gaskill in their employ.

Police work is always changing so we must ensure our tactics and training evolve in this dynamic environment – because the mission is nothing without the man.

Author’s note: The Lessons in Leadership series contains stories about real people and actual events that are portrayed to the best of my memory. Dialogue has been reconstructed from my recollections, which means it may not be a word-for-word transcript, but the essence of what was said is accurate. 

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