Photo: Amaury Murgado
Anything I ever needed to know about leadership I learned serving in the U.S. Army prior to becoming a law enforcement officer. In my 22-year Army career (active and reserve combined) I attended leadership schools required for promotion, including graduating from the Sergeants Major Academy. The Army takes leadership seriously and makes it a training priority. In fact, its battle cry (no pun intended) is to lead by example. It's a credo taken to heart by privates on up through the chain of command. I wish those in law enforcement had the same mindset.
It seems to me that in law enforcement circles there is a great deal of talk about leadership but you seldom see the things preached about put into practice. Take for example a typical promotional exam. It usually includes memorizing some type of management/supervision book. And although most of these types of books have one section on leadership, you seldom find a book devoted entirely to leadership included in the required study material.
In practice, agencies give leadership principles mystical qualities because they seldom appear in real life. What most agencies do well is produce managers; it helps with short-term goals but exasperates long-term ones. Please don't tell me you are part of that innocuous group of lost souls that think managing and leading are the same thing, because they're not.
Business icon and former '90s presidential candidate Ross Perot made the difference clear when he said, "Lead and inspire people. Don't try to manage and manipulate people. Inventories can be managed but people must be led." Over time, this sage wisdom has evolved into a simple message that we should all take to heart: "You manage things, but you lead people."
This problem statement is very simple to write: Law enforcement lacks leadership training at all levels. It's such a common problem I can't blame those often placed in leadership positions for the way they act; they really don't know any better. Think about it, one day you're sitting with this guy at the academy and five years later he's your lieutenant. In seven years he becomes a captain because he's buds with the head of the agency. It wasn't long ago that this guy was your zone partner asking you questions on how to do things. Now he is making decisions that directly affect your career. In reality, without the proper training, he is no better prepared for the position than you are. The only differences between the two of you are a jump in pay, a day job, and an office with a view.
Let's be fair and say the same guy has a few schools under his belt that should help him be both a good manager and a proper leader. He has several plaques hanging up in his office for everyone to see. And they hang there, collecting dust, because they don't mean anything. You see, he never attends training. He comes to work late, takes long lunches, and leaves early. When he is at work, he fills his day with gossip or looking things up he wants to buy on the Internet. On the rare occasion that he is given a task to complete, he sends it down range to someone else. It's not that you dislike the person; you dislike what he does. Or better yet, what he doesn't do. He may be your supervisor, but he is as much of a leader as you are an ancient time traveler.
What Not to Do
Leadership begins and ends by setting the example. It's not about doing something right every once in a while, it's about doing what's right all of the time. It becomes a philosophical question in which your actions become the answer. Let me give you some examples you might be familiar with.
You are a road officer and part of your duties entails traffic enforcement. On duty you're fair about your enforcement but you do have a reputation for stroking people with multiple tickets on a regular basis. Off duty, however, you have a lead foot. Every month you write people tickets for the very infractions you commit. You're not leading by example but rather teaching by example; you are teaching others that it's OK to speed as long as you don't get caught.