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A Little Advice for a New Sergeant

A friend and fellow trainer was just promoted to sergeant.  I talked to her the other day after one of her first shifts as a “boss” and we laughed about what it was like to be a brand new sergeant.  Like when you show up on a scene and think “I’d better call for a supervisor” and then realize “holy cow, that’s me!”  Or the first 20 times someone calls you “Sarge” and you look back to see which sergeant is behind you.   Then I threw a little “senior sergeant” advice at her in the two minutes we had left to talk before she had to go to bed and I had to go run errands, but our exchange left me thinking.  What did I really want to tell her about being a new sergeant?  We see, hear and read a lot about “leadership” in this profession but the term tends to be overused and badly abused.  So many people confuse being “in charge” with being a leader.  Just because you hold rank doesn’t mean you’re fit to lead, but if you have influence over others, or some day you plan to, you’d better start considering yourself a “leader” and act accordingly.    Here are a few suggestions for any new supervisor who wants to be a true leader and not just a “boss.”

You Are Always a Role Model:   The minute you sew on those stripes people are going to be watching you.  Don’t view “lead by example” as a trite phrase, see it as your new way of life.  For example, we all talk about the importance of body armor and why it should be mandatory for our personnel to wear at all times.  Wearing your vest is a no-brainer, but over 200,000 American police officers don’t even own their own body armor and many departments are too small or too poorly funded to be able to purchase a vest for each officer.  As I once read in an essay by now-retired police chief Jeff Chudwin, he said about body armor: “when I go out, I wear mine.  You can’t have two standards, one for bosses and one for officers.”  In other words, if it’s mandatory for his officers, it’s mandatory for him.  That’s leading by example. A true leader doesn’t just talk about it, he or she does it.

Communicating in All Directions:  Real leaders communicate. They talk to everyone; the dispatchers, the officers, the Explorers scouts, and even the janitor.  They keep their peers informed as well as their own bosses. They know what’s going on in every division of the organization because they not only ask, they also listen to the answer.  They don’t build silos, they break them down.  They allow open communication, and more importantly, they participate in it.  Real leaders don’t “kill the messenger” who brings bad news or an unpopular opinion, and they keep their personnel informed.  They also recognize that “communication” isn’t just talk.  Make sure that you know what you’re communicating to others, not just verbally, but non-verbally.  Do you appear confident but approachable; does your body language fit the situation and match your words?  A true leader also uses the words “I” and “me” prudently, a narcissistic manager is tough to work for, put your people first.

Ethics and Integrity for All:  That same “double standard” that Chief Chudwin spoke of as it relates to body armor is often applied in police organizations by the so-called “leaders.”  A watch commander who initiates a “no gratuities” rule and then disciplines officers who take that free cup of coffee shouldn’t brag about the great discount he got on his new truck at the local Ford dealer, and yet some do.  The sergeant who preaches off duty survival to her staff but is too lazy to carry an off duty firearm of her own isn’t a “leader,” she’s a “poser.”  Ethics is doing the right thing, all the time, every time.  Integrity is recognizing the difference between right and wrong in every situation and acting on those differences consistently, regardless of how you are impacted personally.  Real leaders don’t take advantage of their rank or their office, and they realize that they must set the ethical standards, not just preach about them to others.

Taking the Right Risks:  In his training class “The Winning Mind” Dave Smith talks about “No-Men” and “The Law of Delay.”  It is so much easier for a police supervisor, especially a new one, to say “no” to a new idea, a new concept, or a new general order than it is to say “yes.”  By saying “no,” risk is eliminated; and if we keep doing things “the way we’ve always done them” we can’t be blamed when the new idea turns out to be a lousy one.  In police work we are always trying to minimize and manage physical and legal risk, but make sure you challenge yourself to take some administrative risks.  And don’t fall into the trap of “information paralysis” where you just keep analyzing an issue or an idea but never actually make a decision.  There is always going to be more data to be gathered, but true leaders are decisive and willing to get out of their comfort zone to benefit the organization.

Admitting Your Own Mistakes: Many supervisors hate to admit that they’ve made a mistake; they often view it as a weakness and hope that if they ignore (or deny) an error or a wrong-doing on their part, everyone else will too.  It’s incredibly hard to say “I’m wrong” or “I’m sorry” when you’re the boss, but the impact it has on a team is enormous.  Everyone makes mistakes, but in police work our errors can be costly, embarrassing, or even deadly, so we have a tendency to do anything to avoid admitting them.  If you are able to face your own shortcomings or screw ups with honesty and humility, you’ll help your personnel learn to do the same.  As a leader, it’s your job to not only admit a mistake, but you also have to help others deal with theirs.   Most of our errors can be used as teaching tools and most of our mistakes can be rectified.  They key to dealing with errors is to fix them, learn from them and then move on.

Learn to Coach:  Sergeants (and all supervisors) should see themselves not as “bosses” but as “on-scene coaches.”  It’s not your job to find people doing things wrong or telling them exactly what to do, it’s your job to coach them how to do things right.  Sometimes you need to lead your team, sometimes you need to push them out in front of you and pick up the slack from behind.  In one situation you may be their leader, but in another you may find yourself in the role of “cheerleader,” motivating them to go that extra mile.  Be flexible, be compassionate, set high standards for yourself and your people, and go out there and enjoy the best job in the agency.  Congratulations Sarge!