Lonely, But Not Alone

Probably the biggest mistake that leaders make is not properly using the other leadership resources at their disposal. We have a chain of command in law enforcement for a reason.

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"I walk alone..." Duke of Wellington, 1801, after being relieved of command.

"Command is a tough, risky, lonely..." James H. Webb, 1999, on being in command.

It's been more than 200 years since the Duke of Wellington's statement, but not much changes, does it? Since I am still in the United Kingdom working with the police in West Yorkshire, I noted that the two quotes were from an American and a Brit. One of the questions that I am frequently asked here is how I perceive the differences between policing in the United States and the United Kingdom. My answer is that it is really not that different.

Except for the tactical issues American officers face due to our gun culture, the business of enforcing the law remains the same. People jump out of their cars here screaming at the police constables too. Criminal DNA is obviously global. The suspects here all have that same dumb, inbred look. The police constables work long hours, do crazy amounts of paperwork, are underpaid, underappreciated, and have that goofy sense of humour (British spelling) that only a cop can have. They have too few cars, but still not enough parking spaces at the stations. Unfortunately, when they make the ultimate sacrifice here, they die without a gun to defend themselves; two officers from gun violence in the last five years. Hopefully, that will change.

Leadership problems don't change much either, as I learned recently when speaking to a British police inspector over a proper curry a few weeks ago. He was telling me about the difficulties of keeping the constables in his unit out of trouble and doing the right thing. He was very frustrated at the lack of knowledge of some basic community police principles on the part of his constables. His main complaint was that he felt very much alone while trying to keep the unit moving forward.

I recently had a similar conversation with a friend, who is the president of a small company that she founded. She told me that she was doing everything by herself. When everyone else went home, she was still in the office or up late trying to move her company forward. Her complaint was that not everyone seemed to share her vision or take any initiative. She said she just felt completely lonely. Everyone seemed to rely on her, but she had nobody to turn to who could understand her problems.

There is a statue of Wellington in a park that I run by frequently when I work out on the campus where I study. He cuts quite the imposing and unflappable figure, and reading his battlefield exploits, he was cool and calm under fire, but even he felt the loneliness and disillusionment that leadership can bring. So the first lesson is that you may be lonely, but you are definitely not alone.

Those leaders who have gone before you, many around you, and many that will follow, all have or will go through moments of doubt and despair. As I told my president-friend, somewhere out there are other executives running their own companies, burning the midnight oil and feeling disillusioned by those they lead.

The real question is: What are you going to do about it?  

I always recommend developing a network of fellow leaders with whom you can exchange grievances and ideas. I hit up my leadership network often via the cell phone on my way home (hands-free, of course) or on the Internet via e-mail exchange. Sometimes I just need to blow off steam so I can keep my cool the next day. Sometimes, I need a fresh perspective on a problem. Sometimes I just need someone to tell me, "No, it is not just you...I have had officers firing bottle rockets at each other from their patrol cars, too."

Probably the biggest mistake that leaders make is not properly using the other leadership resources at their disposal. We have a chain of command in law enforcement for a reason. Senior leaders are supposed to be available for advice and to bring the stars and bars to bear when you need the environment shaped.

They should be giving you a clear, consistent vision that is communicated across their command. They need to be strongly supporting your actions and defending your decisions, as long as they are morally, ethically, and legally correct. Granted, it might be hit or miss whether or not you receive that support. We have all been there. We can't pick our bosses anymore than we can pick our kids.

The biggest mistake I see leaders making, however, is that they are not demanding the same level of engagement and excellence from their subordinate leaders that they demand of themselves. They are not mentoring them, nor are they helping them gain the training and experience that they need to be successful.

If your people see you doing everything, then they will lack the feelings of pride and ownership and won't take the initiative to do anything. My unsolicited advice to both my inspector-friend and my president-friend was that they should delegate more tasks and use them as learning events. If they want long-term loyalty and success, they need to be prepared for short-term mistakes, which can be managed through mentoring, communication, and training.

It is unlikely that I will ever command troops to a glorious victory like Wellington at Waterloo. I am just trying to do the best I can in the leadership roles that I have, with the resources at my disposal. As I get older, I view leadership similarly to working out: it is painful and exhilarating at the same time. You have to fight through the pain to get to the exhilaration of making a positive difference. "Winning" is rarely clear cut, but it is more important that you fight the good fight.

I figure Wellington would be fine with that. After all, facing Napoleon on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, he said, "There is one thing certain, Uxbridge; that is, whatever happens, you and I will do our duty." 

Mark G. Stainbrook is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department and was recently promoted to lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He has served tours in Kosovo and Iraq. Mark is currently completing research at Leeds University on a Fulbright Police Fellowship. For comments or questions e-mail mgstainbrook@msn.com.

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