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Front-line leadership, Part II

Last month, In part one of this series on front-line leadership, we looked at the example of 1st Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters and his leadership of Easy Co of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division following their D-Day jump into Normandy.  Thrust into the command of Easy Co following the loss of their ranking CO, Winters quickly distinguished himself as both a soldier and leader, so much so he not only rose quickly in rank and responsibility but garnered the lasting respect and admiration of the men who served under him.  Decades later they still speak glowingly of his abilities as a soldier and leader.

We chose the story of Lt Winters as an example of front-line leadership because he so exemplified the traits we believe demonstrate it. 

Make an example of yourself

“He went right in there and he didn’t… he never thought of not being first, or sending somebody in his place.  I don’t know how he survived.  But he did.”

-       Member of Easy Co, about Dick Winters

“Lead from the front.  Say, “Follow me” and then lead the way”

-       From Maj Dick Winters “10 Principles of Leadership”

It’s true the experience of combat is very different from most civilian endeavors, including most day-to-day policing, and leading under the threat of near constant enemy fire is unique and not easily translated to the civilian world.  On the other hand, that those examples of such front-line leadership are exhibited by mere kids all the time in combat should serve as an inspiration in the civilian world.  The pretenders to true leadership – those who talk the talk but have never taken the walk – will be exposed, and maybe nowhere faster than in a police organization. 

Police supervisors who constantly cajole subordinates to do more, produce more, be more proactive, or work harder with less better have been a hard charger in their own right when they were line officers or their hypocrisy will be known.   If a boss or officer is going to lead an assignment or project they had best have some skill or knowledge germane to the task, or be willing to go the extra mile to obtain it, or anyone assigned to follow is going to naturally question their ability and qualifications to lead. 

The reality is, of course, you might find yourself supervising a unit, or tasked with a leadership assignment, far outside your area of expertise.  Perhaps you made detective after only a couple years in patrol and now, eighteen years later, you’ve made sergeant and find yourself pushing a squad around on a midnight shift supervising a crew of veteran patrol coppers who were mostly in junior high school when you started the academy.  Or your boss pulled you into his office and laid out a problem in need of a solution… and your job is to figure out the solution and fix the problem.  You have a team of colleagues to help you, but no rank over them and no greater experience than any of them, but they temporarily answer to you.  Good luck and have at it!  Could either scenario pose a problem?

Sometimes doing the opposite of what seems to be our natural inclination – hiding weakness and faking competence - and admitting your own uncertainty or inexperience, and then demonstrating how you’ll overcome them, is the key to gaining trust as a leader. 

Know those you hope to lead

“A leader has to understand the people that are under him, understand their… their needs, their desires… how they think a little bit…”

-       Major Richard “Dick” Winters

Notice here we say “hope to” lead.  That is deliberate and real; because you have leadership responsibilities, either through rank or assignment or both, does not make you a leader.  A manager, maybe?  Possibly someone who’ll receive at least a modicum of respect for the rank or assignment by those you hope to lead, out of a respect for the hierarchy, or a desire to avoid headaches or to fly under the radar.  But are you really leading?

As we’ve studied leadership, morale, and organizational dynamics one thing keeps coming back to the forefront:  Real leadership is about relationships

One of the most common flaws of the would-be leader is assuming the values, desires, and perspectives he holds are shared by those under and around him.  Look around your squad or agency, however, and see if such an assumption holds water.  Dedicated, hardworking cops can collectively share certain core values and philosophies about policing, criminal justice, and what it means to be a cop while simultaneously harboring unique individual values and philosophies that may distinctly set them apart from many of their peers without ever compromising shared core values or their effectiveness as officers.  There is nothing wrong with that, and diversity of thought and interest is actually important to the profession and within individual agencies. 

Do you think those cops who gravitate toward narcotics and vice enforcement may hold different values, interests, and motivations than those who work traffic, schools, sex crimes, or patrol?  They may, and that’s okay.  And, in fact, if you took flourishing officers from each of those units and tried to force them against their will into a different unit or assignment, they might not flourish.  They might flounder, fail, or even rebel.

Finding and understanding how those under you are motivated is key to actually leading them.  You should know whether they prefer a lot of direct supervision and frequent input from you, or do they operate best with minimal direction and then getting out of their way?  And learn as much about them as you can beyond the job. What are their hobbies and interests, or their educational backgrounds and work prior to joining the department?  All these will help you better understand your people, and might even help you understand all the intangible skills and experience you might someday have opportunity to tap into.

Develop both your team and your confidence in them

“Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop teamwork”.

“Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their job. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination and creativity.”

-       From Maj Dick Winters “10 Principles of Leadership”

The term “Subject Matter Expert” (SME) is one we hear frequently to describe members of an organization who have experience, interests, or education giving them unique knowledge that sets them apart, and police departments are filled with them.  Their status as SMEs may have come from either training provided by the agency or from their own interests and initiative.  Either way, SMEs are all around you and, if you are a front-line leader worthy of their respect, generally happy to share their knowledge and experience for the good of the team you lead. 

But sometimes you have raw material with an interest in learning more or expanding their skill set.  Are you, as a leader, aware of what your people want to learn or how they want to grow?  Have you taken the time to understand the directions they would like to go, or to encourage their professional and personal development?  Are you taking the time to find them the educational and experiential opportunities to reach their goals? 

Are you the type of leader who holds tightly to the reigns of control, or do you prefer a looser grip?  Delegating responsibility is not the same as leading from the rear, or taking a hand-off approach.  It is about developing both teamwork and the team members.  Cops are often natural, confident leaders in their own right who join a paramilitary organization that stresses a hierarchical, top-down command and decision structure.  Over time, they can begin to feel their own skills are downplayed or dismissed and even if they respect the hierarchy they may chafe under it.  Good front-line leaders recognize the potential of the other leaders in the room, whether they have rank or not, and understands developing them is a key function of their role.  How are you doing at this?  

And here we add a very important note:  Being a front-line leader does not require stripes on your sleeve or bars or stars on your collar.  Leadership does not require rank.  Front-line leadership can come from many quarters, arising as needed, and from the most experienced veteran to the greenest rookie depending on circumstances and need.  In order for this to occur, however, the agency and its appointed leaders must have buy-in to the idea of recognizing and developing the department’s informal leaders.

Embrace humility

“Remain humble. Don’t worry about who receives the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.”

“Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best.”

-       Maj Dick Winters “10 Principles of Leadership”

Be humble.  Give credit more than you take it.  Remember those who have helped you to your position, and strive to help others.  And realize that with power and authority come great responsibility, so constantly make sure you are meeting your responsibilities.  It’s something we all should remember.

Talk of front-line leadership is something we hear all the time lately, but what does it really mean?  You may have your own definitions or ideas, and we welcome you to share them with us and fellow readers, but we think these four principles provide a solid foundation for those who aspire to lead from the front.