Lessons in leadership: They call you a leader, but is anyone following you?
True leadership isn’t a self-assessment; it’s a position that is measured by your peers and earned by the troops that trust and respect you enough to follow you into the field
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.
The subject of leadership came up during a conversation with a friend recently, and she said something that struck me: “Do you know how you can tell if you’re a good leader? Turn around and see if anyone’s following.”
That statement captures the true essence of leadership, as we all know there can be no leaders without followers. True leadership isn’t a self-assessment; it’s a position that is measured by your peers and earned by the troops that trust and respect you enough to follow you into the field.
There has never been a more challenging time to be a law enforcement officer. We currently work under an unprecedented level of scrutiny. In addition to our dash cams and bodycams, every traffic stop or interaction is routinely caught on cell phone cameras, posted on social media and sensationalized by the mass media. I fully support transparency in our profession, but the problem with most of these “citizen-produced” videos is the lack of context. Things are not always what they seem. If you capture the last 30 seconds of an officer’s aggressive attempt to restrain an uncooperative suspect who has been threatening to kill him for the last 30 minutes, the video will not provide the whole picture. Unfortunately, the justice system in today’s society has shifted to “guilty until proven innocent,” at least for cops or other persons in positions of authority.
More than ever, we need strong and capable leaders to guide young officers during these trying times. Without effective leaders, it will be incredibly difficult to recruit and retain qualified officers who are willing to serve. What can today’s police leaders do to inspire their troops to follow them into the high-crime areas of their communities and hometowns?
It may not look right, but it is right
One of the things that surprised me most in SWAT was how common it is for family members to take each other hostage. We dealt with hundreds of those types of situations. When we received a callout one night that a man was holding his wife and kids hostage, it came as no surprise. The wife had called the police and said her husband had two guns. Anytime an armed hostage-taker is separated from the hostages, we have to take that opportunity to neutralize him. It may be the only chance we get. I had instructed my squad to take out the suspect if he came to a window or a door where we could make visual contact. All bets were off unless he had a white flag in his hand. One of the sergeants instantly said it would look like murder.
I looked at the on-scene commander and said, “Sir, it may not look right, but it is right.”
He said, “Do what you’ve got to do. I have your back.”
It is incredibly important to have a leader who will back you up when you do the right thing, even when it might not look right to the general public or there’s a risk of getting heat for it. These leaders are willing to put aside concerns about their careers, and the optics of any given situation, and focus on what needs to be done. They are not waffling fence-straddlers; they have conviction.
Sometimes the actions of officers look violent, and they are. We deal with violent people on a daily basis. To save our own lives or the lives of others, we often have to make choices that are unpopular among people who believe everything can be solved peacefully. An encounter that looks like police brutality to the average citizen could be a common peroneal strike or a brachial stun. We still have to deal with the political fallout. A good leader gets ahead of the criticism in explaining these types of things to their troops and other stakeholders, such as the media.
Sometimes, situations will end badly. When they do, the good leaders are still standing by their troops, saying, “I told him to do that.” The bad leaders are nowhere to be found.
Trust your troops
Good leaders know what they don’t know. They realize they’re not always the smartest people in the room and their troops represent a wide swath of experience, expertise and skills. You can always learn something, even from the youngest, newest guy on the department, or someone unexpected. I’ve had maintenance men show me covert ways to gain access to an apartment, and fire captains come up with highly creative solutions for getting a barricaded suspect out of a home. Don’t dismiss a new officer’s ideas or actions.
Trusting your troops also means knowing when to talk and when to listen. When a SWAT officer arrived on a callout, no matter what his rank was, he often superseded everyone there – chiefs, deputy chiefs, lieutenants and sergeants – because he was a specialist. One of the smartest police chiefs we ever had in Dallas was David Kunkle. He showed up at our command post during a critical incident where the suspect was barricaded in a second-story apartment, shooting thousands of rounds into the adjoining apartment and the neighborhood.
Chief Kunkle sat there and listened thoughtfully as SWAT devised a plan of action. He knew he didn’t go to SWAT school, so he allowed his specialists to make the calls, regardless of rank. Chief Kunkle didn’t try to interfere or give advice as we discussed what type of teargas we would use or how we would make entry. He knew the buck stopped with him, but he was smart enough to listen. If things went wrong, Chief Kunkle would ultimately be accountable but he never tried to tell us what to do.
There is value in the laissez-faire approach. Troops don’t want to constantly have their decisions questioned by leadership, especially when they’re the experts. Great leaders can keep their egos in check because they remember where they came from. We were all rookies once. At one time, every police leader was a newly minted patrol officer sitting in a squad car with a field training officer, thinking, man, I hope I pass training.
When your troops do really sharp things, recognize them for it. During my first week on the job, my supervisor wrote me a commendation for simply writing a neat and concise burglary report. I spent a lot of time on it and was proud of my work, but I never expected anyone to notice. To this day, I remember how much that meant to me as a new cop. It would have been a lot cooler if that commendation had been for catching a bank robber or a fugitive, but nonetheless, I walked around with my chin up all day.
One team, one fight
As police officers, we are taught to fight the good fight, but it’s not always easy. We already ask so much of this profession, and the environment has only grown tougher. There is a very vocal minority that will criticize what officers do on a daily basis. Sometimes, it can be a real psychological beating. As you’re out there doing your jobs, remember there is a silent majority that supports you. I saw it firsthand in the wake of the July 7, 2016, ambush that took the lives of five of my fellow Dallas police officers and injured over a dozen more. Tens of thousands of letters of support flooded in from all across America, along with donations for the families of the fallen. Our police headquarters was covered in flowers, teddy bears and signs. Strangers would randomly come up to us on the street to say thanks and give us hugs. It was awe-inspiring and humbling to realize we mattered that much. They had our back in that moment.
Police leaders need to let their troops know they have their back. Show up. Be visible. Let your team know you’re there. Fight the presumption that you’re back at the station, feet propped up on the desk and drinking coffee while they risk their lives. There are many great patrol supervisors who are already going out with their officers on calls or simply eating lunch with them. All supervisors should be doing it. It has such a huge effect on a young officer to see a sergeant or lieutenant doing grunt work. It sets the tone at the highest levels that this truly is one team, one fight. If the policing profession is going to thrive in these trying times, leaders cannot afford to look at it any other way.
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.