Make Yourself a Leader

No asset is more valuable in contemporary American policing than the ability to take charge and get others to follow.

America is at war. We hear it every day on the news, and we in the law enforcement community have seen it firsthand in the changes to our training, equipment, and procedures.

My theory is that the military and the police are coming closer together in many ways. Having served in the military, I have long felt the need to start training police officers in leadership, using the same techniques that are effective in teaching leadership to military officers.

Think about it. Every time you as a police officer put on that uniform and go into the field, people look to you to provide leadership. Whether it is solving their problems, saving them from a criminal or from themselves, or just by doing the right thing, you are the most visible representative of our government, our community, and of a civil society. That's a very awesome responsibility, yet most law enforcement agencies neglect training officers in leadership until they are at mid-level or senior ranks, which is much too late.

So what can you do to learn how to be a leader now? It's simple. You must make a daily commitment to think about leadership, to study it, and to embrace it as a way of life.

A while back I attended a class on close-quarter-battle techniques taught by a SWAT officer from the Los Angeles Police Department and he said something that I'll never forget. He said, "I don't consider myself an expert on these tactics and techniques, but I consider myself a student of these tactics and techniques and I am constantly studying, learning, and building my knowledge." Of course, he was an expert by definition and according to the California courts, but I was impressed that he was humble enough to admit he didn't know everything and was always learning.

The lesson here is that you have to keep studying to be an expert. That's true in all fields of policing, and it's true for leadership.

Here are a couple few ways to sharpen your leadership skills:

An old boss of mine liked the saying, "If you want a new idea, read an old book." There are hundreds of excellent books on leadership to choose from. They don't need to be law enforcement related, but when you read, apply the ideas to situations you have seen in your department or in the field. Without giving specific recommendations, there are several excellent books on 9/11 that should be mandatory reading for all police, fire, and medical personnel.
Believe it or not, movies are also a great way to stimulate critical thinking. While watching movies that present leadership dilemmas, consider what you would do in the same situation.

Finally, don't be afraid to talk among your partners in an honest and forthright manner about the leadership issues that are facing other officers, supervisors, and your department. I am talking about constructive interaction, not complaining.

And remember this quote from Vince Lombardi, "Leaders aren't born they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that's the price we'll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal."

Mark G. Stainbrook is a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department and a major in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He has served tours in Kosovo and Iraq. 

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