I was recently asked if I could speak to my son’s Scout troop on the basics of leadership. I readily agreed. They asked me if 45 minutes would be enough time, since they assumed that even the basics of leadership must be a complex, multi-faceted topic that requires a lot of in-depth explanation. I told them I’d only need about five minutes, unless the kids had a lot of questions. I explained that the basics were actually pretty simple, but most people in leadership positions are either unwilling or unable to abide by them, which is why there are so few good leaders around.
The basics can be boiled down to three points:
- It’s not about you.
- A good leader does not demand service from those he leads, but provides it to them.
- Give as few orders as possible.
'It’s not about you.'
First of all, acknowledge that you are not in a leadership position because you are the most awesome, talented person at every conceivable task under the sun. Your ideas are not necessarily the best, and your way of doing things is not necessarily the most effective or efficient. Your personal preferences are completely irrelevant. When you took on a leadership position, your wants and needs went to the absolute bottom of the priority list.
If you are a patrol sergeant and the shift following yours is short on personnel, and no one wants to stay, you’d better be stepping up and taking that extra shift yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re hungry, or tired, or that you were planning to go home and watch the game. It’s not about you. If no one wants to stay, it likely means that they are hungry or tired or have plans of their own, and if someone has to be inconvenienced it should be you, not one of them. Forcing one of them to take on an unwanted task that you could do, but would prefer not to, is not how a good leader should behave.
If it’s a freezing cold night shift and one of the patrol cars doesn’t have a working heater, and there aren’t any other cars to take, you’d better swap with the unlucky officer assigned to that car. It doesn’t matter if you forgot to put on your thermals that night, and it doesn’t matter if you really hate to be cold. It’s not about you. Yes, you can order the patrol officer to stay in their assigned car and be cold all night, but just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. A good leader takes the car without the heater.
If, instead of a sergeant, you’re a newly-promoted Patrol Division Commander or Chief of Police, and you’ve always hated that your department allows beards because you think it looks unprofessional, you should do whatever it takes to come to terms with it. What you should not do is change the rules and regulations in order to suit your personal preferences, because that sends the message to everyone you are supposed to be leading that, from your point of view, you are not only the most important person in the department, but you are also literally the only person in the entire division or department that matters. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of the message you want to be sending to your people.
Similarly, if your department has allowed baseball-style uniform caps for the past couple of decades (which most of the officers prefer), and you’ve always preferred the traditional eight-point uniform hat, you should put your personal feelings aside and leave it alone. A good leader is not going to inconvenience or annoy the people they are supposed to be leading in order to satisfy their own personal preferences or whims. A good leader remembers the maxim, “It’s not about you.”
The core principle here is that your people are your first priority. There are multiple ways to get respect as a leader, but demonstrating that you believe you’re the only person in the department who matters and then demanding that everyone respect you is not one of those ways. You are not the most important person in your squad, division, or department. Words and actions, on a continual basis, are necessary to show that you are putting your people first. If you treat them like they don’t matter, even if it’s not all the time, but you occasionally throw them a nonspecific “good job” or “thanks,” you are making it difficult if not impossible for them to respect you as a leader, which will automatically make it difficult if not impossible for you to lead them effectively, or even adequately. When that happens, it’s a sure bet you’re not accomplishing your mission of providing the best possible police services to your jurisdiction.
Leadership is not a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, such as poker, if five people sit down at the table, each with one hundred dollars, at the end of the game there will be exactly five hundred dollars divided in some fashion between the players at the table. No additional money was created, and no existing money was destroyed. If leadership was a zero-sum game, you could treat an officer like they didn’t matter at all on Monday, and on Tuesday you could tell them “Nice job!” and everything would be back to normal. Leadership doesn’t work that way.
In a nonzero-sum game, things can be permanently lost or destroyed. All parties involved can gain, or all parties involved can lose. If a supervisor treats one of his people like they don’t matter, that creates a large hole in their professional relationship. The officer has lost some amount of the trust they had in the supervisor, and the supervisor has lost some amount of the respect the officer had for them. If the supervisor isn’t utterly clueless, he or she has also lost some of their self-esteem for treating one of their people in such a disrespectful manner. If the supervisor later treats the officer with respect, that won’t make up for the earlier loss, because being treated with respect is what’s supposed to happen all the time. Some portion of the trust and respect the officer (and any other officers who saw it happen, or who heard about it afterward) had for you will be permanently destroyed. It will never come back.
Any time you are considering placing your own personal preferences over the personal preferences of the people you are supposed to be leading, you need to remember that leadership is not a zero-sum game, and what you are about to destroy can never be replaced. And it’s easy to remember that if you keep in mind it’s not about you.
'A good leader does not demand service from those he leads, but provides it to them.'
A good leader is one who helps his or her people to do their best. A good leader will do their utmost to make sure their people have the resources, training, and feedback to do their best. You should be continually acknowledging the effort your people put into their work, and letting them know by word and by deed that you appreciate them. A good leader puts his or her people first whenever possible.
Years ago, when I was in the army (military police), a frequently-heard comment was “R.H.I.P.”, which stood for “Rank hath its privileges.” It was often said by “leaders” who had no business being in a leadership position, because they thought their position conferred privilege upon them rather than responsibility.
For example: On a field training exercise which lasted several days, we were issued MRE’s for most of our meals. One particular day, when there were nine of us on a mission away from the company area (eight soldiers and one E-5 sergeant), at lunch time it turned out we had miscounted or been shorted somehow and only had six MRE’s for the nine of us. The sergeant laughed and said “RHIP” as he took one of the MRE’s off to one side to eat his lunch, leaving the rest of us to divide up the remaining five so that everyone would get something to eat. This particular sergeant always acted like he believed he was more important than the people he was supposed to be leading, and as a result no one thought very much of him or respected him at all.
On the opposite side of the leadership spectrum was our platoon sergeant, who was more than a little strict and demanding. He expected everyone to do their job to the best of their ability, follow orders, and accomplish the mission, and he’d make your life difficult (to put it mildly) if you didn’t. However, he would also, on a regular basis, show up at guard mount inspection and pick out the person whose boots and uniform looked the most outstanding, or who had done a particularly great job on a recent call or investigation, and he would casually tell them they had the night off and he’d be working their shift for them. (Time off was handled quite differently in the army than it is in police departments.) I’m quite certain he would have preferred not to work all night after doing his own job all day, but he did it anyway because he was an excellent leader. For that reason, and for many others that had to do with him routinely putting his soldiers’ wants and needs above his own, he had the complete respect and loyalty of everyone in the platoon.
I wanted to mention the platoon sergeant, not only to give a good example of a selfless leader, but also to emphasize that putting your people first does not mean, by any stretch, that you let them get away with goofing off or not doing their jobs. You are not trying to be friends with them or get them to like you; that’s not what putting them first means at all. You should expect and require them to do their best while still making it apparent to them that you put your own wants and needs last, far behind their own.
As a police supervisor, at any level, your overall mission is to provide the best possible police services to your jurisdiction. That can only happen if the officers and detectives working for you are confident they have your complete support, that you are looking out for their best interests, and that you are not putting your wants and needs over and above their wants and needs. It is certainly not going to happen if the rank-and-file feel that their own leadership doesn’t appreciate them and couldn’t care less about what they think is important. It also isn’t going to happen if you mistake “putting them first” with “letting them do whatever they want so they will like you.”
'Give as few orders as possible.'
As Leto Atreides said in Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” once you give orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject. If your people feel like you don’t have the faith in them to accomplish the mission without micro-managing them, they are certainly not going to let themselves get invested in that mission. They aren’t likely to care one way or the other about it, or about any particular mission. They won’t feel any sense of ownership, and that is going to result in far less job satisfaction for them, regardless of how well that task may go.
If you tell your people what needs to be done, and then you let them decide how they should do it, you are not only showing faith in their abilities, but you are also empowering them to make decisions and increasing their confidence and their ability to accomplish that mission. They don’t have to do things the way you would do them; after all, it’s not about you. You can, and should, expect and require them to do all things in a reasonable fashion, but not expect or require them to do things the way you would do them, or the way that you and other leaders later determine would have been the “best” way of doing them.
An officer or detective who is allowed to decide for themselves how to best accomplish their mission is automatically going to feel a greater sense of accomplishment upon successful resolution than that same officer or detective would if they were told precisely what to do every step of the way. Any department staffed with officers and detectives who are permitted and encouraged to make their own decisions and to operate at all times in a reasonable manner is always going to be providing better police services to their jurisdiction than a department where everything grinds to a halt unless a supervisor is there to micro-manage everything, or a department where the officers and detectives have been inadvertently trained by their “leaders” not to make decisions because those decisions are always second-guessed and undermined by supervisors who don’t have the first clue about what actual leadership is.
Every time you encourage one of your people to decide for themselves how to handle a call or an investigation, they are learning more about what works and what doesn’t. That is especially true if they make a mistake and have to go back later and fix it with additional work. As a supervisor, you have a duty to step in if you see they are about to make a serious mistake with serious consequences, but if they are about to make a mistake that simply requires a bit more work to fix, let them make the mistake. They will learn a lot more from fixing their own mistakes than they would ever learn if they had a supervisor looking over their shoulder all the time, telling them what to do and how to do it. The results will not only be more highly-skilled officers, better able to make quick decisions and handle all different types of calls for service, but will also be more motivated officers with higher morale who have much greater job satisfaction and who are more invested in their own efforts, which means you are accomplishing your mission; to provide the best possible police services to your jurisdiction. That mission cannot be accomplished if you believe and act like you are the only person who matters, that your people are there to serve you, and that you need to direct them in everything that they do.These are the very basics of leadership. I’m not suggesting they are all-encompassing, but they need to be mastered if you aspire to be a good leader. Just like in firearms training, where you can’t proceed with more advanced skills until you have mastered sight alignment, sight picture, and trigger control, when it comes to leadership you can’t proceed with more advanced skills until you have mastered these three basics.
About the Author
Michael O’Brien spent three years in the 101st Military Police Company at Fort Campbell and five years in the 344th Military Police Company (USAR) in New Haven as a sergeant and squad leader before joining the Brookfield (CT) Police Department in 1997. He was promoted to sergeant in 2004 and to detective sergeant in 2009. He is an avid hiker and backpacker, a traffic crash reconstructionist, firearms instructor, and member of Mensa, and is also the father of high-school-age triplets. He can be reached via email at [email protected].