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On Leading Cops and Two-Year-Olds

April 01, 2006  |  by Mark G. Stainbrook - Also by this author

"The only real training for leadership is leadership."—Anthony Jay

Most of us are leaders in some facet of our lives. Any police officer who doesn’t think of himself or herself as a leader is just plain wrong. I doubt that a cop who is also a parent could argue being a parent isn’t about leadership, because it most certainly is.

If you read my columns then you know that I insist that if you want to improve your leadership, you must compare the various leadership roles that you play out in your everyday life. In this column I am going to compare my role as a parent/leader to that of a police supervisor/ leader.

In my case, I am the parent of a precocious two-year-old. She is something of a cross between R. Lee Ermey and Attila the Hun. She is as ornery as Ermey, and is about as forgiving as Attila. Sound like any cops you know?

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to compare the intellect and mental state of my two-year-old with that of highly trained, professional police officers. I am merely comparing what makes for effective leadership for both parties. In any event, I believe my two-year-old would be highly insulted at the thought of me suggesting that she is on the same level as a police officer; she already thinks she is smarter than everyone, including me.

My first rule of leading these two headstrong groups is not to just tell either of them to do something. I try to do it with them, especially if it is an unpleasant task. I don’t tell my two-year-old to pick up her toys by herself, I help. I don’t tell cops to go out in bad weather and work unless I go out there too.

Training is a great example. I can’t tell my two-year-old to go potty train herself, so why would I send cops to train and then not go with them? Even if it was just to see how they were doing, encourage them, and make sure the training was going okay? Potty training is very similar. In fact, I say most of the same things at both events: “Are you doing all right?” “You are doing a good job, keep it up!” “You peed on the floor? No problem, we can fix that.”

Cops and two-year-olds get mad about a lot of things, but generally it doesn’t last too long. Both like to complain, so the thing you have to do as a leader is to use the art of distraction. Get them to focus on things that they can do something about, and not stay upset over things they can’t change. When my two-year-old fusses about changing her diaper, I ask her to hold on to the powder or crème for me. It gives her something important to do. When cops complain about their old cars or the court system, I try to focus them on the positive things they can do to have an impact on crime, namely arresting bad people and helping nice people. That, too, gives them something important to do, rather than wasting their time lamenting on those things they can’t immediately fix.

Let’s talk discipline. I don’t like disciplining either cops or my two-year-old, but it needs to be done if they refuse to learn from verbal entreaties or admonishments. Police supervisors and parents don’t get their jollies enforcing discipline. The lesson for leading both cops and two-year-olds is making sure discipline is fair and equitable. Some mistakes don’t rate punishment, because cops will be cops, and two-year-olds will be two-year-olds, but they should know what they did was wrong and not to do it again. If the offense is serious, then let the punishment fit the crime, so to speak. When you are fair and a straight talker, cops and two-year-olds generally will respect you and not hold a grudge.

There are pitfalls for parents and police supervisors when dealing with two-year-olds and cops. A two-year-old who wants something first asks one parent for it. But when they don’t get what they want, they go ask the other parent. I have had this happen to me as a police sergeant. An officer asked me to do something, which I rejected for logical reasons that were apparently obvious only to me. When my answer was not to his liking, the officer went to our lieutenant, failing to mention that he had already talked to me and that he knew why I had rejected his request. Fortunately, my lieutenant and I had already prepared for this occurrence, and the first thing he asked the officer was, “Did you ask Sgt. Stainbrook? What did he say?” The obvious solution for parents and police supervisors is to prepare for this inevitable situation and support each other’s decisions.

You have to hold both cops and two-year-olds to things they don’t like to do, like going to the doctor or going to training. Afterwards they find that it wasn’t so bad, and maybe they even improved or learned something. Two-year-olds get lollipops, and maybe cops get some social time over an adult beverage and a game of pool or darts. Hopefully, afterwards, neither party will think you are all that bad.

When you want to improve your leadership skills, instead of reading an academic volume on classical leadership, write down what works for you from your own various leadership experiences. In this increasingly complex, technologically suffocating world, it can sometimes be refreshing to go back to the basics and see life from the perspective of those you lead, whether they are two or thirty-two.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to lead my two-year-old to the bathroom.

Tags: Leadership, Tips for Success, Command Staff


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