Why wrecks happen when a chief is not at the helm

If you are not standing on your bridge scanning the horizon for the shallows, rocks and storms ahead, your command could be sailing into disaster


By Dave King

There was a captain on a boat who set out on the water one sunny day with his crew. The water was like glass. It was smooth sailing. The captain had a cook, deck hand and engineer.

A couple of hours into the trip, the cook was chopping carrots for lunch when the captain appeared. The captain took the knife from the cook and began to cut the carrots into 3/8" slices on the diagonal. As the cook watched the captain spend so much time and focus cutting each carrot to an exact specification, the cook wondered, “Who is driving the boat"?

As the captain of the boat, the chief of police is responsible for plotting the course of the department and setting the direction and speed, while operating the controls of the boat. (Photo/Pixabay)
As the captain of the boat, the chief of police is responsible for plotting the course of the department and setting the direction and speed, while operating the controls of the boat. (Photo/Pixabay)

The deck hand was busy baiting the hook of an angler when the captain arrived and took the anchovy from the deck hand. He carefully placed the hook 11/8" from the tip of the anchovy’s tail. Then slowly the captain let the bait into the water, methodically allowing the weight to drop the bait down toward the bottom at 12 inches per minute, until the bait was exactly 15 feet from the bottom. The deckhand watched the captain meticulously bait the hook and wondered, “Who is driving the boat"?

The engineer was carefully tending to the twin diesel engines powering the boat when the captain arrived and began to adjust gauges and levers seeking to find the "right pitch of the engine whine." The engineer saw the captain place his ear on the side of the engine to detect the slightest change in vibration and wondered, “Who is driving the boat?"

A large crash then resounded throughout the ship and the boat shuddered as it hit the shore. As the captain rushed to the bridge to see what happened, he saw his boat was wrecked. He asked all those around him, “Who was driving the boat?”

“Isn’t that your job, Captain?” asked the cook, deckhand and engineer.

Don't let wrecks happen on your watch

When a captain spends too much time away from the bridge of the ship, wrecks happen. The boat above ran aground on a sunny day with water that was as smooth as glass. If bad things can happen on a perfect day, imagine how much quicker tragedy can strike when the weather turns stormy.

As the captain of the boat, the chief of police is responsible for plotting the course of the department and setting the direction and speed, while operating the controls of the boat. The chief is responsible for observing the current weather conditions while staying informed on upcoming weather. The chief needs to know:

  • Where are we going?
  • How are we going to get there?
  • What do we need to make the trip?

The mission, vison and direction all come from the office of the chief. As Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots famously preaches to his players, “Do your job.” I would add, “And trust others to do theirs.”

Trust those under you to perform

When the chief gets down in the weeds and takes over tasks assigned to other members in the department, it displays a lack of trust in the abilities of the persons assigned to those tasks. The chief sends a message to everyone in the organization that no one can do that task as well as “I can.” That message may be unintentional, but it is heard loud and clear by all in the organization.

There may be certain standards the chief wants met for the tasks that are to be performed, and that is okay. Those standards should be clearly presented at the time the task is assigned and then the employees allowed to carry out that task. Issues may be corrected and technique refined as the task is being completed, but for the chief to take over the task altogether sends a message that employees are viewed as incompetent. That message creates a culture where no one dares to be creative or propose new solutions to a chronic problem for fear of failure or being “corrected.” In a department where only the chief is right, or able to complete a task correctly, that organization stagnates and maintains status quo through the lowest possible level of competency until a new leader arrives.

A successful department hires the best people, trains them to a professional level, and then encourages creative thinking and problem-solving. The chief operates at the 30,000 foot level, effectively communicating the mission, vision and values of the department for those who will put them into action. No one benefits when the captain of the boat is not at the helm but below deck taking on the tasks that are not related to “driving the boat.”

This boat ran aground on a warm sunny day with water that was as smooth as glass. If bad things can happen on a perfect day, imagine how much quicker tragedy can strike when the weather turns stormy.

The Exxon Valdez did not run aground because it had a mechanical failure; it ran aground because it had a leadership failure. The captain failed to do his job and the ship, crew and environment all suffered as a result. If you are a leader, “Do your job, and trust others to do theirs.”


About the author

Dave King began his law enforcement career in 1983 as a reserve deputy for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBSD). Hired full time by SBSD in 1986, he worked gang investigations and patrol duties for a 250-square-mile mountain substation. Dave joined the Vancouver Police Department in Washington state in 1993 and has served there as a patrol officer, detective, detective sergeant and patrol sergeant. He served on special operations (both as a lieutenant and commander), oversaw SWAT, K9, the civil disturbance team and traffic, and partook in a police practices exchange in Northumbria England and the Mounted Patrol Unit. He is currently assigned as a patrol precinct commander where he oversees police services to over 85,000 citizens and has served as the incident commander for multiple Antifa/Proud Boys protests. Dave is a graduate of the 248th session of the FBI National Academy.

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