We were about an hour away from the end of a quiet three-to-eleven shift when Ed, one of the patrol officers assigned to my squad, walked into my office. “Hey, Sarge, my family’s vacation plans changed. Would it be okay to move my vacation week over by one week?”
I checked the calendar, and no one was off that week. “Sure, Ed. Write it up, and I’ll submit it before I leave tonight. An hour later, I dropped the paperwork in the lieutenant’s mailbox on my way out for the evening.
Upon arriving for work the next day, I was summoned to that same lieutenant’s office. “What is this?” he asked.
“Oh, Ed’s family’s plan changed. He needed to move his vacation one week over.”
“Absolutely not,” he replied. “If I do it for him, I’ll have to do it for everyone.”
I was stunned. When I say it was five minutes of work, I’m exaggerating by about two minutes. I remember thinking to myself, “You know what one-year-in-grade lieutenant who works steady dayshifts with no weekends and has hot coffee delivered to his private office each morning, night after night this officer is making 2:00 a.m. motor vehicle stops and walking up on cars with tinted out windows, he’s making drug or gun arrests every month, and he deals with the worst of society on a daily basis. I don’t think moving his vacation over by one week is too much to ask.”
I opted for a more diplomatic approach and eventually convinced him to make the change.
As law enforcement leaders, we will never be able to thank our people by offering the use of the company skybox. We will never be able to reward our people with stock options, a December bonus, or let them go somewhere on the company jet. But do you know what we can do? We can let Ed move his vacation over by a week!
It has nothing to do with vacation time, either. Such a request might go against a collective bargaining agreement in some agencies. It has nothing to do with that.
It’s about saying yes. It’s about finding ways to say yes whenever we can.
Law enforcement is a demanding profession. It takes a toll: reduced life expectancy, higher levels of stress, shiftwork, missed family events and activities, elevated levels of alcoholism, long hours, no-notice overtime, Monday-morning quarterbacking, danger, tragedy, middle-of-the-night callouts, unrealistic caseloads, and the list goes on.
Our people deserve leadership that recognizes this. Our people deserve leadership that not only recognizes this but takes proactive measures to mitigate some of these factors by providing an exceptional working environment or at least as exceptional as possible. Law enforcement needs leaders who look at this function as a critical part of their job and look at themselves, in part, as a support system.
It’s about saying yes when we can say yes. It’s about asking ourselves, “Is this request an imposition or an opportunity? Is it an opportunity to thank and show our people that we appreciate them and their efforts?”
It is about remembering those days when we had to nervously walk into a boss’s office with a request of great importance to us, hoping that they would say yes. Coming through on these seemingly small things can be some of our most appreciated and meaningful work that we do.
It’s even more important today with the unprecedented recruitment and retention challenges. Compensation and benefits are not enough anymore; our people want to work for good organizations. They want to work for organizations that take care of their people. And they deserve it. They have always deserved it. Law enforcement, when executed correctly, is the noblest profession on the planet. It is a difficult, sometimes impossible job, and those who perform this job deserve nothing less than spectacular leadership.
It’s best if this philosophy is encouraged and reinforced from the top. Patrol supervisors should not have to lobby a lieutenant to reconsider allowing an officer to move a vacation week. Such upward diplomacy would not be necessary in a culture that places a high value on the needs of its employees. The expectation that leaders at all levels make creating and maintaining an exceptional environment a top priority should come from the agency executive. In fact, it should be more than an expectation; it should be an organizational commandment, a core value.
We can have discipline and still provide an extraordinary working environment. We can function as a quasi-military organization and still look out for our people and their families. And we can have high expectations while allowing for flexibility as well.
If it did go the lieutenant’s way, imagine the conversation between the patrol officer and his wife.
“Were you able to move your vacation?”
“No, I think we have to cancel the beach house.”
“Why? Was the other week blocked?”
“No, it was wide open.”
“Then why can’t you move it?”
“The photocopier was too far from the lieutenant’s office.”
Our people deserve more than being led by civil servants unwilling to do more than the absolute minimum. And any talk of resiliency and officer wellness is meaningless if we can’t come through with the small things.
The other piece to this is the mentality as we ascend in the organization. Far too many think that a promotion equates to less work. That is the exact opposite of leadership. Simon Sinek aptly addressed this mindset in a quote: “Leadership is not a license to do less, it is a responsibility to do more.”
That must be our mindset.
With each promotion, we should see an even greater commitment to our people. With each promotion, we should feel an obligation to get better, stronger, faster, and smarter.
The days of 40 work years until the gold watch are long gone. If our people are unhappy, they will leave. There are agencies everywhere that would happily welcome good people.
So, the next time a subordinate nervously approaches you with a request, ask yourself: Is this an imposition, or is it an opportunity?
About the Author
Andrew retired from the Freehold Borough Police Department in 2015 after a 25-year career where he spent 14 years as a road supervisor and later as the investigations division commander. Additionally, he served as the agency training officer, range master, press information officer, and director of a highly successful youth police academy program. After retiring, Andrew accepted a position with the attorney general’s office managing the CODIS Compliance Unit which oversees the statewide law enforcement DNA collection program consisting of more than 500 participating agencies. Today, he serves as the lead presenter for LeadingBlue.com and presents on training and various aspects of leadership throughout the country.
Andrew also serves as an adjunct professor for two different institutions and can be reached at [email protected].