It’s the least effective and most unrewarding rank. All the ranks above it and all the ranks below it not only succeed at their missions, but their members feel useful, valued and part of the team, too. This one rank in law enforcement is so underutilized and dispiriting that, from an organizational perspective, there must have been some piss-poor planning in creating it. Or more likely, because of command-level decisions about it, over time, it devolved to its present sorry state.
Or maybe lieutenants are really that dull, untrustworthy and useless?
I don’t mean to be condescending (for you lieutenants, that means to talk down to you), but everywhere I go, it’s lieutenants who seem to be the unhappiest. They’re pessimistic, they’re disgruntled and they mostly talk about retirement. They weren’t that way as sergeants. Their common response to any question is: “Let me go ask the captain.” Don’t they know anything?
The lieutenant rank is a cop’s first dab at an administrative role. My union used to call it the start of the de-balling process. And all too often, it is. Sure, as neophyte administrators, perhaps they shouldn’t be wearing the king’s ring for every major no-win decision that befalls them, but oughtn’t they be able to sign off on things like staff’s preference to run their patrol cars through the car wash at the beginning of their shifts instead of at the end and stuff like that?
Even though this reality has been going on forever, new lieutenants invariably jump into their new rank starry-eyed, proud and excited about all the new leadership opportunities they’ll have. I’ve tried my best to warn them, to no avail. To me, their promotions are kind of like those “ionization blackouts” when spacecrafts return to our atmosphere: for four minutes, there’s no way to communicate with them. For lieutenants, that lasts about four months.
The truth is most new lieutenants are smart, energetic, enterprising and highly capable men and women. After all, they just beat out a bunch of top-flight sergeants for this promotion. So, for a while, their optimism and pride naturally outrun their pragmatism and prudence.
I think that there are a bunch of diverse, compounding factors that have led up to this universal bottleneck of law enforcement organizational dysfunction. One of them is the misalignment of perspectives. I remember when I was an admin sergeant. This grizzled command staff sage of a guy who I respected asked me what part of our organization was its center and purpose. Of course I said patrol. He told me that until I realized it was admin, I’d be out of sync with reality. That’s because everyone else serves admin and carries out its wishes. They’re admin’s tools.
I kind of thought he was a tool for saying that. I still think it’s patrol, and that the rest of the organization, including admin, should be its life support system. But command staffs (all those in ranks above lieutenant) are all too often full of people who see admin as the organization’s nucleus. If you have that perspective, why would you trust your newest, most junior administrators with any decision that is not urgent?
That’s why most lieutenants have been told by their superiors that before making any non-urgent decision to “just run it by them first.” At first blush, that might sound benign. You could even say it goes toward good mentoring. But it’s dumb.
Ninety percent of what law enforcement does can wait, so that means that lieutenants only get to lead at times of urgency … you know, those very situations that are most likely to make tomorrow’s newspaper. If you want them to get good at those, don’t you think it’d be a good idea to give them enough leash to handle the other 90%, too, and have them report back later?
Some of this problem actually goes to this whole thing about leadership. New lieutenants just came from the second-best leadership post in law enforcement: sergeant. The only one that beats it is sheriff or chief. As sergeants, new lieutenants were used to making important decisions out in the field, and a lot of them. But as lieutenants, they enter into what I refer to as the leadership silo. That’s where all of law enforcement’s non-urgent decisions have to go so that they can slowly percolate to the top for an answer. At the top of that narrow silo sits the sheriff or chief. At the bottom: lieutenants.
Regardless of the number of command ranks in between, everybody in the silo knows that only safe, simple questions with obvious answers don’t need to be submitted to the silo. All the ranks above lieutenant are anesthetized to this reality and are used to it. Since nothing that gets into the silo is urgent, everything in it requires some sort of meeting. Also, since command staff work is mostly boring and rote, they don’t need to seek permission as much as lieutenants do. But when they do, they already have access to the top of the silo throughout the day. So, for them, there’s adequate flow.
Here’s another reason lieutenants get de-balled: captains, commanders and assistant chiefs are mostly alphas, too. By nature, of course they want to get to make the decisions. If they allowed the lieutenants at the bottom of the silo to make most of the non-urgent decisions, they’d severely diminish their few chances to lead troops.
So, not unlike managers in major league baseball, lieutenants stand on the side wearing the uniform, but they never swing the bat. What’s left for lieutenants to do? They’re new administrators, but they can’t really administrate. They find out that they’re really command staff’s administrative assistants … with guns and all, but still. Sure, they’re put “in charge” of specialties like SWAT, FTO and EVOC, but mostly that just means they get to do all the paperwork and deliver it to the silo for sign-off (or not).
The lieutenant rank is being wasted. But if your organization has only a little bit of courage, with a few simple changes, your outfit’s mission efficiency and effectiveness could soon take flight. The very first thing that needs to be done is to ban all captains from invoking that “check with me first” mantra. Just like spanking and circumcision, plenty of them only do that because that’s what happened to them.
All lieutenants should be encouraged to be strong and immediate decision-makers. When their hearts and minds agree that they have the right answer, let them give it! After all, as sergeants, they became adept at navigating plenty of no-win situations out in the field.
But remember, too, that all good sergeants also know when to push up the worst of these situations to their lieutenant — not because they don’t already know what will need to be done, but because doing so makes the lieutenant the new problem owner (one gal I worked with referred to these things as the old bunga-or-death-by-bunga dilemma, if you remember that old joke). I think that in most of these times, lieutenants should still feel safe to talk these situations through with their field staff and agree on the course of action without having to call daddy.
Next, captains and all of command staff should change their view of their roles to be less Moses-like, coming down the mountain with edicts, to actually something more akin to their lieutenants’ support staff (i.e., the servant leadership model). Somebody in command staff needs to always be reachable 24/7/365, and a simple system should be put in place to assure that it happens. Also, sometime during every lieutenant’s shift, someone in command staff should physically show up at their office to check in with him or her. Then, they can discuss whatever decisions the lieutenant recently made and worthy mentoring can happen.
Continuing, when lieutenants get a new shift, assignment or specialty, they should be given 90 days to perform a complete review of it and directed to submit that review along with their best ideas for improvement. Upon command staff’s review and approval, the lieutenant should be provided the resources — and the leash — to proceed.
It’s been said that law enforcement organizations can be visualized like a tree full of monkeys. The top monkey looks down to see nothing but smiling faces looking back up at him or her, but for everyone else, the view is pretty much the same. Both above them and below them, it’s the lieutenants’ branches that may provide the most realistic view. For this reason, yearly and as one team, all lieutenants should be directed to collaborate on a state-of-the-department report that identifies strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Not only will this provide valuable insights, it will also increase cooperation and communication throughout this rank, and it formally honors lieutenants’ strategic organizational value.
Finally, for all lieutenants, standardized, measurable performance metrics for all of the deliverables that are generated under their command need to be accumulated and tracked for review and comparison with those of their lieutenant peers. For example, for patrol lieutenants, what are the average number of calls for service, arrests, reports taken, on-view contacts, traffic stops, citizen complaints, etc., per officer under their command? For detective lieutenants, filing and conviction rates would be telling. All of this is important because it’s most often the lieutenant rank where cops start losing their performance edge. Once you’re giving your lieutenants the support and authority that they deserve, they need to be held accountable for the performance of all staff under their command.
It’s becoming harder and harder to do this job right, with fewer and fewer opportunities to take new ground. But sometimes, obvious things continually get missed. Law enforcement has been perpetuating the misuse of this critical rank for so long that it’s become our standard default setting. But now you see it. For the sake of your organization’s effectiveness, and for the goodwill of these individuals, I hope your command staff has the sense and the courage to remake your lieutenants into all that they can and should be.