Four Hard Truths in Leadership

Stumbling blocks can hamper supervisors' efforts, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep trying.

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Leadership makes or breaks an agency. It must be true because leadership topics get a lot of attention and agencies stress their importance. Considering that so much time, effort, and money usually goes into developing leadership skills, why does it fail so miserably? My experience has exposed four truths that can keep you from reaching your full leadership potential no matter where you work.

1. You can only be as good as your supervisor allows.

You are probably a decent leader and have made a difference already. But what keeps you from doing even better is your immediate supervisor. The good ones increase your effectiveness. The bad ones hold you back.

The bad ones tend to thwart your ideas, make their decisions based on how it affects their career, and follow the company line blindly. Your ideas tend to go up the chain in a half-hearted way. Leadership never thrives in an environment like that and you are robbed of your full potential.

2. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.

It's not that you are not trying, don't care, or that you are a poor leader. If you are good at what you do, the responsibility rests on your subordinates' shoulders. You can't do it for them. If members of your command ignore your leadership attempts by just doing the minimum required to stay employed, there is not much you can do about it unless your agency raises its standards.

Some people will never change their attitudes and don't want to. Alexander the Great could be trying to motivate your group and there would be some who'd be more interested in where they were going to eat lunch than in what he had to say.

3. You can't save everyone.

Over the years, I have invested a lot of time, energy, and effort into trying to turn around some of our agency's problem officers. I did what I was supposed to do by mentoring, teaching, motivating, and giving second chances. There were times that I failed miserably. Sometimes, you never get through to them.

You deal with this failure by understanding you are responsible for your choices and they are responsible for theirs. Some people make career-ending decisions and get exactly that; an opportunity to work somewhere outside of law enforcement. It's not always about you.

4. Your failure to lead is their failure to perform.

The first three points focus on others; the last one focuses on you. Your failure to do your job will lead to the failure for others to do theirs. Some people just don't care and will roll their eyes at your efforts.

The bottom line is your subordinates will get away with what you let them. More importantly, they will mimic what they see you doing. So, if you want them to do it right, you better be doing it right.

If you are having issues, try to leverage your sphere of influence. For example, inspect your subordinates' cars, weapons, and equipment. Periodically check on their work product. Send them to training whether they like it or not. In other words, there are things you can do that are usually found in your policy and procedures that don't need someone's preapproval.

Don't forget that at the other end of the carrot is the stick that holds it. If you must, start taking away their privileges. Taking away a privilege is not considered discipline. I have made many an officer park their assigned vehicle at the office for a week, instead of taking it home, as part of an object lesson.

I have also changed their work hours, changed their zone assignments, and I have even taken away their laptops and made them do everything by hand to make my point. Afterwards, they may still harbor a less than stellar attitude, but they know what behaviors are acceptable and that you are not afraid to handle those that aren't.

The fact that these four truths will follow you throughout your supervisory career doesn't mean you should stop trying. You can still make a difference by having a positive effect on those who want to do better. A former lieutenant of mine used to teach all his sergeants the same way. He would stress that a great part of our job was to get the very best out of our people one day at a time. He balanced that by saying some days would be better than others but we should keep trying anyway. To follow his advice, we started by doing our job first and then worked from there. I recommend you do the same

Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida.

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Lieutenant (Ret.)
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