You will often hear police officers across America say, “I’m not in it for the money” or “I do this with the hope of making a positive impact on others,” and indeed these words are true. Most police officers started their journey in law enforcement with the purpose of doing just one thing: helping others. We are called to this job, and serving others is in our blood. This is the very essence of servanthood. So how do we as leaders continue this approach with the changing generation of followers?
Times in law enforcement are changing and changing fast. The turnover rate is at an all-time high and is continuing to grow. Our trade is currently under a microscope with the eyes of the public and the media watching our every move. Because of attrition in these trying times, there is a new generation of officers coming in and rising through the ranks. These new officers are simply trying to gain the experience they need to be successful and make an honorable career out of law enforcement. Face it, the days of doing something simply because “Sarge said so” are gone. These new officers simply want to know why and how to do something, and the quickest way to lose their respect and trust is to reply with “Because I said so.” This type of response will leave them feeling inferior and worthless. Instead, we should be embracing these officers and showing them how to be the best they can be.
Mentorship is not about making someone just like you, it is more about making them a better version of who they already are.
In the eighth edition of his book, Leadership: Theory and Practice, Peter Northouse writes: “Access to technology has empowered followers, given them access to huge amounts of information, and made leaders transparent. The result is a decline in respect for leaders and leaders’ legitimate power.” Just think about that for a second. You as a leader have already lost stock in your followers to things such as YouTube and Google. However, there is an answer for this, and it comes in two forms: authentic leadership and servant leadership. And quite frankly, you cannot have one without the other.
Let us look at authentic leadership for a moment. I want to start here because before we can serve others, we must be ourselves. Remember the day you put on your fresh new uniform? You left roll call and were on the road out of field training and working as a police officer. Even though you were still a rookie, you were out there serving and protecting. From the time you answered the first call and took the first report, your reputation has followed you throughout your career and department. You grew in knowledge, and promotions started coming your way. So what happened? Have you changed? What changed you? I have often been told that the person makes the rank; the rank does not make the person, and when it comes to leadership, this could not be further from the truth. Authentic leadership, however, is more than just being “real.” It’s having ownership of your followers, being transparent, admitting when you’re wrong and being a mentor to those whom you are placed in charge of. Before you place worth on and stock in someone else, you must first know your own worth. As an authentic leader, you must live by the values, morals and ethics you believe in and ditch the mindset of “do as I say, not as I do.” Once you have accomplished this goal, you have now gained the respect you need to start the process of being a
As I mentioned before, most of us are in this line of work because we feel that we have been called to serve others. As leaders, we cannot lose sight of this, and its influence is two-fold. We cannot lose sight of our calling to the community, but more importantly, we now have a call to serve our followers. Servant leadership is an art that can only be perfected over time. Even in the Bible, we see an example of servant leadership when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Now, I am not suggesting we wash our troops’ feet, but the point being is, we have to humble ourselves and learn what our followers need to be successful and do whatever is in our power to get it for them. So how do we do this? How do we become servant leaders?
There are two foundational cornerstones that we need to have to gain and maintain any relationship: trust and respect. Once we have these, and they will take some time to gain, we will have followers who will do anything for us; however, we must be willing to do anything for them. There are several books and articles out there that are designed to help establish a direction toward servant leadership. One of these books is Cara Bramlett’s Servant Leadership Roadmap. In her book, she outlines 12 competencies to servant leadership that help lay these foundations. These competencies are centered on the individual leader and not the followers. Yes, ironic, I know, but to lead others, we must first lead ourselves. We as leaders need to look at competencies such as self-awareness, empathy, acting with humility, culture of trust, listening, mentoring, vision and continuing self-development. Above all, we as servant leaders should really concentrate on empathy, mentoring and self-development.
Bramlett writes, “As leaders, one of your greatest strengths is empathy.” Empathy is the pathway to each of the competencies of servant leadership. When we express empathy, we can open up and talk to our followers and truly delve in and learn about them as people, getting past the label and surface of them simply being an employee. One thing that has always impressed me about the sheriff I work for is that he knows everyone in the department by name. Once we start practicing this empathy, we are teaching ourselves to be listeners and we start building that trust and respect that will be needed to be an effective and influential leader. Empathy is not, however, an open door to cave to every need of our followers, but it will build the trust we need so that in the event we have to tell someone “no,” that individual will have the trust and understanding in the decision that was made. Through empathy, we as leaders can now connect on a much deeper level with our followers, giving us a different perspective on the decisions we make and how they will affect others.
For anyone to have success, there is almost always a mentor involved. Someone who was there to help an individual find their way, understand what it is going on and pass knowledge of approaches and tactics that have or have not worked. Think about your career and who your mentor was. What did they teach you? How strong of a relationship do you have with them, and how beneficial is it to you now? Mentorship is not about making someone just like you, it is more about making them a better version of who they already are. So what does this look like in practice? It is understood that every department has their own way of reporting crimes and different policies in which they operate. What are you doing to mentor your followers? Part of this comes through the trust process. Your followers must trust you enough to bring their problems to you and ask you for advice. Using phrases such as “If it were me, this is how I would handle it” may be acceptable, but is that really a step toward mentorship? One way to look at mentorship is through the lens of reflection. We all make mistakes, but we can learn from them. As a leader, taking the time to address these mistakes with our followers by analyzing the situation and the decisions that were made allows us to formulate a new way to respond to the same or similar situations in the future.
Another approach that can be taken is through practical applications as well. How many times have we as leaders shown up on a scene where the incident command system (ICS) is in place and we immediately take over because of rank? What good is this doing for the younger officers? Instead, we should be there by their side giving them resources to be successful. Not only is this servant leadership in action, but this is practical mentoring by allowing them to operate with their own identity and supporting them with any advice they may need to be successful. John B. Edwards is a former commanding officer from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). He is well known for traveling around the country giving leadership training classes and has written a book titled The Burden of Command, where he addresses the burden of servanthood. In a section of his book, he looks at the ego of a leader, writing: “Self-confident servant leaders can openly talk about their experiences, their past failures and mistakes, and use these stories as ‘teachable moments.’” When have you set your ego aside? The perfect time for conversations like this is during the debriefing process of an incident, a meal break or even at shift change. The toughest part of leadership is showing a weakness. However, using these lessons learned and sharing them with your followers only empowers them to make good, sound decisions on their own.
Just because you have reached a certain rank does not mean your training, education and development as an officer and a leader should stop. What you invest in yourself will shine through and have a lasting impression on others. As I stated previously, we are leading a new generation of officers. This generation is not afraid to ask “why” either. We need to have the answer for them or know where to get the answer from. On the other hand, when our followers see that we stop training, seeking knowledge and just overall become complacent, they begin to see this as a new norm. Let’s face it: the newer generation has new ideas that can get the job done twice as fast with half the effort. So when they see that we as leaders have stopped, their effort decreases as well.
Selflessly serving others is why we got into this job. Are there times where we seek the adrenaline rush? Yes! Moreover, to help our fellow man is the primary goal and responsibility of any police officer. Why must this change as a leader? We owe it to the next generation to keep the trade alive and respectable. As time passes and we move on to our next life endeavor, we are leaving a legacy behind us. Every summer, my family used to go to Edisto Island (South Carolina) and stayed in a rental house. My mother would always tell us, “Leave this place better than how you found it.” Times are tough and changing; are you trying your best to leave it better than you found it?
Adam Oxendine is a 16-year veteran of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in Columbia, South Carolina, where he is currently a Major Crimes investigator. Throughout his career, he has served as both a line supervisor and a supervisor for the Sheriff’s Department’s K-9 team, where he spent 10 years as a handler. He also spent five years as a volunteer firefighter and is currently an active member of the South Carolina State Guard. During his time in the department, he has earned an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and two master’s degrees, one in criminal justice and one in organizational leadership. Adam is also currently enrolled at Northeastern University where he is working on his doctorate in education (Ed.D.) in leadership.