Young Commanders' Mistakes

Aug. 26, 2019
The unfortunate reality is that there is a fine line between achievement and failure in the command structure. Avoid the simple mistakes.

Here is a generic scenario that I have witnessed in the past. As you arrive on the scene of an incident where there was a stalemate within primary emergency response leadership. Nothing was getting accomplished for the officers were waiting on the supervisor to decide their plan of action.  The issue at hand is there a young supervisor or commander standing behind their crew and reluctant to make a decision. Often a freshly minted and shiny new rank that is holding up the mission. Now, when you inquire who is in charge of this incident, all will point to the young hesitant leader. Now, if he or she is the incident commander -then they should command.  Why this tentative decision process? Could it be paralysis created over-analysis or trying to shirk their duties? Someone has to make a decision to progress this incident along. When you later debrief the fabulous new leader, you discover that they are afraid to make a mistake. We all do not want to make mistakes. Not in front of their staff, not in public or media eye. When we do, it can jeopardize lives and risk the mission.  In their eyes, it there career or position in life is overriding their decisions.

What happened here is not against the fire fighter or fire services but can occur with any police, fire, or military leader. This is such a common experience, I had to use the most recent example for this piece. When a young person has been thrust into a supervisory position, are they asked are you ready? Most who have had ‘a few lucky Saturday’s’ (police phrase for passing the promotional tests) as they go up the ladder. Now what do they do? When I interview and even the last conversation before agreeing to promote anyone, I ask one question. “Do you really want this position?” If they answer in the affirmative, I remind them to “be careful of what you seek”. Yes, I have had some actually turn down an appointment. There is honor in knowing your limitations.

If the young leader was fortunate enough to have had training to prepare them, along with meaningful work experience they should be on the correct path. I would hope that they are being mentored (not monstered) by colleagues. Leadership is a path, a journey to so to speak. Of course, I have seen those who upon getting the big promotion gained ‘instant intelligence’ and they literally go feral with new found power confusing it with knowledge. Their cavalier actions will take a toll on them and sooner or later bring them back to normal. These worry me but there are other observations as well. These are the really dangerous one that need to be reined in quickly.

Frozen – the first-year jitters are not the excuse. Several will hide under their desks for at least one year so they gain civil service protection of that rank. Being a ‘conditional appointed or probationary’ of any rank will freeze many like a granite statue. If they could hold their breath for one year and a day, then they have that rank locked in. Often times, their inaction or omissions can risk the mission and even lives of staff. Standing back behind the lines and hoping is not a strategy. Of course, if you allow a few Type A officers on the mission, it will be accomplished and at most you have to hold back on their reins. But what if you are not ‘liked or respected’ by the staff? They could hold themselves back to allow themselves to see what you are made of. Being a new commander is not a popularity contest winner, you are their leader not their pal.

Overbearing- to the opposite extreme some young supervisors will become tyrannical in that they will attempt to put their touch on every call. Guess what – it is impossible. You cannot manage everyone during every moment of the day. Learn patience and learn to trust the system. If you have good first-line supervisors (Sergeants or Corporals) let them lead and guide the officers. Trust is the hardest thing for young supervisors to learn, invest time with your first-line supervisors, they are the play callers- you coach. A veteran chief once stated that he looks at this first-line supervisors as problem solvers. They handle the everyday obstacles and rocks in the way of progress. His command staff are solution providers, when the obstacles require heavier lifting. Good analogy to apply here.

Two things an overbearing supervisory must know and learn.  First, supervision is like holding mashed potatoes in your hand. The harder you squeeze – the less you hold. The potatoes will shoot out between your fingers. Just like managing people, the harder you squeeze them, the less you hold. Now with the right touch, you can form the potatoes into a useful shape (potato boxty or a fritter). The good leader can help mold their staff into a team, it too requires the right touch. The second thing the overbearing leader needs to learn is that they will tie themselves up on every incident or overtask themselves. For when the major call occurs, they may not be available when actually needed. Time management is a trait you should refine.

The Balancing Act – If you are that newly appointed supervisor, please grasp the idea of a gymnast on the balance beam. To walk it you need to pace yourself as you travel upon it. You need to sometimes wave your arms and seemingly out of control you regain your balance. Your journey over the beam as a supervisor is one that requires immense focus – if the job was easy then everyone could do it. You must constantly practice and refine your thought processes as to what time you devote and what do you delegate.  You cannot ride every call and attend every meeting, delegation to another is a gift to maximize your time and group efficiency. If the powers that be thought that you should be on every call, then they would have cloned you rather than promoted you. There is a process to this madness called supervisor and command. Use your observation skills to assign the best suited for the tasks at hand. Train and develop the remaining of the staff. Trust and invest in your first line supervisors. Hope is not a strategy, investing in the staff works every time. 

About the Author

William L. Harvey | Chief

William L. "Bill" Harvey is a U.S. Army Military Police Corps veteran. He has a BA in criminology from St. Leo University and is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute of the University of Louisville (103rd AOC).  Harvey served for over 23 years with the Savannah (GA) Police Department in field operations, investigations and completed his career as the director of training. Served as the chief of police of the Lebanon City Police Dept (PA) for over seven years and then ten years as Chief of Police for the Ephrata Police Dept (PA). In retirement he continues to publish for professional periodicals and train.        

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