If you’re intending on making a career in law enforcement, you’re going to become a leader, whether you plan to or not. Maybe it’s by promotion or simply by experience, but eventually, people are going to look to you for advice, tricks of the trade or perceived wisdom. Here’s a question you may want to ask yourself right now: “If it’s inevitable that I’m going to become a leader, what kind of a leader do I want to be?”
We’ve all worked with “that guy.” The person who pretends to know more than they do, uses their position of authority to bully people, isn’t receptive to feedback or simply doesn’t care about people. There are hosts of people who can say they are leaders — or might even believe they are good leaders — but don’t actually have the faith of the people they are supposed to serve. Because at the end of the day, it isn’t what you think about yourself or what you say about being a leader, but what people say, see and experience in you that determines if you are a great leader. No matter how much we think we know about ourselves, everybody in life has a “B” pillar. The bar responsible for the blind spot that haunts us and endangers the driver next to us, the one just over the driver’s left shoulder, the one that ensures that no matter how good your peripheral vision, you have a blind spot.
The obvious solution to finding out what kind of a leader you are is to ask those who live and work with you what they think … and then make it safe for them to be honest. Telling folks you want to be great at your job and want their honest feedback is a daunting request and takes a huge dose of humility. Hearing that feedback — and accepting it without unfriending them on Facebook, removing them from your will or changing shifts or partners — takes a huge dose of grace. Because who you are (how you show up day in and day out) says more about you than who you say you are.
Knowing that we intend to rise up through the ranks can help us remember that the people we work alongside may one day work for us, and it’s easier if they respected us from the beginning.
Saying what you would do in a stressful situation tells people something, but watching what you do in a stressful situation tells people everything. This is never about being perfect because nobody on the planet has that figured out. It takes real sincerity to evaluate your own behavior, or let others witness it, and then own how you show up. If you are able to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, you become relatable to everyone in the room. Because we all — yes, every single one of us — screw things up under pressure, stress out or have fear. When our rational mind slips into our emotional mind, and our behavior slides right into “I don’t know what decision to make,” or the more dramatic, “Oh my God, we’re all going to die!” mode.
Finding a mentor is a tremendous benefit to avoiding leadership pitfalls; it means finding someone you trust and respect who has already navigated the waters. Don’t be deceived by flash and brass. Watch the person you think is a good mentor and ask others how they feel about them as a leader. Although there will always be those who find fault in everyone, the scales will tip in favor of experiences with a great leader. When you find someone you look up to or respect and want to emulate their behavior, make sure you give them the grace to be imperfect. It’s easy for us to place expectations on others and then be crestfallen or even angry when they fail to live up to the standards we hold for them. It’s no one’s job to live up to our standards, it’s our job to live up to the standards we set for ourselves, and even then, we are going to have to be able to give ourselves a break now and again.
“It’s lonely at the top” is a phrase most of us are familiar with. There’s a reason for this truth.
When you get into a place where you are a true leader, you will need to refine your circle of influence to those who lead with you or those who mentor you, and to stop sharing the daily woes with your colleagues. This can be an incredibly hard transition for those of us who are used to being on the front line, boots on the ground, in the trenches with our comrades. But once you are promoted, you’ll need to limit sharing complaints (personal or professional) with those you lead. Leaders have an inherent responsibility, and that is the ability to shoulder the trouble without sharing the weight. There are definitely exceptions to the rule, but being able to keep troubles and important information to yourself is a sign of strength and an expectation of leadership.
This, in no way, is a recommendation to suppress pain because leaders are often forgotten when it comes to the issues of behavioral wellness. Being responsible for the well-being of your subordinates can sometimes put us in a position where we, once again, put our own self-care on the back burner, and this is the opposite of the message I want to convey. More than ever, we as leaders must embody the skills we hope to promote and encourage. Nothing you say will ever disguise the fact that you are not taking care of yourself. It will show up as impatience, hasty decision making or the very clear impression that you are becoming burned out on leading. Here is where the rubber meets the tarmac, and we learn to embrace the skills we want those we supervise to use as well.
Leading others can be a lot like parenting. The best approach is to live with respect, treat with respect and receive respect, not demand it. Putting teeth into the phrase, lessons are better caught than taught.
When people obey us because we tell them to and have power or authority (through rank) over them, we may not actually have their respect or their faith in our abilities. We just have them doing what we ask of them, and sometimes not even that.
This can be a hard line to hold if we accept a promotion and now have to lead those we once worked with. Knowing that we intend to rise up through the ranks can help us remember that the people we work alongside may one day work for us, and it’s easier if they respected us from the beginning.
Knowing some appropriate personal details of those you supervise will go a long way towards helping them believe you care about them. The idea that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care is as true in leadership as it is on patrol. Take the time to learn the names of the people who work for you because saying, “Hey, buddy,” every time you see someone in the hallway is a pretty clear indicator you aren’t taking the time to learn their name.
If you’re ready to play the “I’m terrible at names” card on me, I will call your bluff. Because if at this very moment I offered to pay you $10,000 for the name of every person you could remember in the next 10 days, I would be writing a check for several hundred thousand dollars. However, names are easy to remember if you make an effort to associate the person with anyone else you know with the same name. For example, you meet a woman named Rose, and you remember you have an aunt named Rose; then say her name 10 or 15 times in your head and use her name while talking to her. Just simply saying, “Thank you for speaking with me today, Rose,” and then leaving the conversation with “Nice meeting you, Rose” will begin to build a neural pathway for recognition. Every time you see her or speak with her again, use her name and reinforce the memory. These are mnemonic devices (ways to remember things), and lots of people have their own tricks for remembering names. If you have folks you work with on a regular basis, take the time to learn their birthdays and names of their loved ones — spouses, partners and children. Keeping it in the notes section of your phone is a great way to have easy access to the info. Then when you know, you’ll be in a meeting that affords you the opportunity to have any personal contact. Ask about the things that matter to them, so they know they matter to you. If you think it’s impersonal to write the information down, I assure you, your colleagues will admire you for making an effort to remember what is important to them.
I’d take this one step further by encouraging you to make face-to-face time with all those you supervise. If your sole source of communication is email and text, you lose the personal nuances that make interaction so interesting. Gestures, body language and facial expressions are as valuable a part of great communication as is clear information. Having a supervisor make time out of their busy schedule to check-in face-to-face for 15 minutes to see how things are progressing can build a great deal of personal credibility and professional loyalty. In fact, many corporations take it one step further by requiring what’s referred to as “one-down” conversations at least once a year. A one-down is when you meet with someone who reports to someone who reports to you. Some of these conversations are quite educational for the manager, and even if he or she learns nothing new, the employee feels like they have a voice in the organization and that they are important.
There is an adage that the best way to know who is going to be a great leader is by watching those on the line to see who a great follower is. The person who is willing to learn, be curious, seek advice and do what’s been asked of them without argument or excuse is a person who can be trusted at the front of the ship.
At this moment, you may not be planning to be promoted, but by virtue of time and tenure, you are going to be a leader. Make the decision today to set the stage for what that will look like, not just for the respect of others, but out of respect for yourself. When you look back on your career, you will know, for all the mistakes, all the learning, all the do-overs, you did your best to be a great leader.
Because when all is said and done, if you think you’re leading, and no one is following, you aren’t actually leading; you are merely taking a walk.
Susan Farren is the founder and executive director of First Responders Resiliency, Inc.