Why caring about the ketchup will make you a better leader

Good command staff make sure officers have what they need, even the ketchup


By Cory Nelson

How many police commanders are aware of what is in the breakroom refrigerator? Is there a bottle full of fresh ketchup? If not, why not? If leaders know minute details such as the status of ketchup in the breakroom, then I am guessing they are relatively plugged into the details of the rest of their district. They probably will have a strong followership.

As the weather warms here in Wisconsin, we are looking forward to breaking out the grills again. We encourage shift cookouts in Madison to promote team and district unity. But what is a cookout without our favorite condiment? You may ask yourself, why would I care about ketchup? The answer is in the question, it shows you care.

You may ask yourself, why would I care about ketchup? The answer is in the question, it shows you care. (Photo/Pixabay)
You may ask yourself, why would I care about ketchup? The answer is in the question, it shows you care. (Photo/Pixabay)

It shows you care about your officers if you care about a little thing that makes their meal that much more enjoyable. While you are looking for that bottle of ketchup, did you notice the refrigerator could also use a good cleaning? While you are scrubbing out that refrigerator, did you notice the breakroom floor could use a vacuum since your janitorial staff does not come for a few more hours?

While you were vacuuming from the breakroom down the hall to the locker room, did you notice all the old stuff in the locker room that has not been gone through in years? Did you notice the cobwebs in the corners and the dust on top of the lockers? Much of leadership is about how you deal with the little things.

As a district commander, I want the officers assigned to my district to know I care. I care about the small things, the things I don’t think are usually noticed but are by those who are trained to look. I care about making sure the officers have what they need, even the ketchup.

Take a seat at the lunch table

After 30 years on the job, I understand the stress officers go through every day. I want and need for them to have a comfortable, clean and safe place to retreat to when they must. Officers need to be able to let their guard down occasionally.

Officers want to see their command staff in an informal setting at times. How long has it been since you ate your lunch in the breakroom? This is an daily routine for me. It is healthy to get away from the computer screen and allows me to bond with the officers who it is my duty to protect and oversee. We talk informally about the day’s events and about issues they want to discuss without the formal chain of command.

After being promoted to captain and being assigned to a district, I immediately started taking my lunch break with the officers, and I could not believe the positive feedback I received. From day one, officers appreciated this simple gesture. It shows you care about their day, and it allows them to tell you about the sad calls, the bad calls and the mad calls.

My command staff and I spent the other day cleaning our breakroom and locker rooms from top to bottom. Yes, we have janitorial staff, but the place needed a deep cleaning from the winter’s worth of sand and salt that had been tracked in. Officers noticed, they talked about it and the word spread: “My commanders care about me!” Caring builds trust, while bars on the collar and sitting in an office does not. Trust between all employees leads to countless good things happening in your agency.

How long has it been since you have checked your bottle of ketchup?


About the author
Cory Nelson is a captain with the Madison Police Department (MPD) in Wisconsin where he has served for 30 years. He is currently assigned as the commander of the South Police District. His past assignments included narcotics, SWAT, persons crimes, investigative services, focused deterrence, and professional standards and internal affairs. He was also responsible for bringing the concept of an opiate-related criminal diversion program to the MPD.

He is an alumnus of the National Institute of Justice’s LEADS Scholar program and is currently serving as an executive fellow of the National Police Foundation. He is a Wisconsin Law Enforcement Command College graduate, and now serves on the board of directors. He is an instructor for internal affairs investigations for the Wisconsin Department of Justice and has taught focused deterrence for the U.S. Department of Justice at a variety of national venues.

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