Before you scan past this article thinking it’s just another writer preaching about leadership, keep reading because I’m probably going to touch a nerve with most readers. Let’s start by examining the current state of leadership in law enforcement. As someone who’s served in various law enforcement positions for the past 33 years, it’s not a giant leap to say this is the worst leadership vacuum I’ve seen.
Leadership is most often thought of as flowing from the top-down, where command staff is leading their departments by making decisions and providing guidance to those of lower rank. Leaders at the command staff level should be role models and mentors for their people. Decisions at the command staff level are a delicate balance between what is best for the city, county and/or state, what is best for the department and what is best for the people who work for the agency.
I have had the distinct pleasure of working for some terrific leaders during my career. One of those men is now the sheriff of Crook County, Oregon. Sheriff John Gautney is a leader who cares about his people, is a natural mentor, keeps calm in the face of chaos and doesn’t let the emotions of the moment interfere with rational decision-making. I didn’t always agree with him, but I always respected him. I really enjoyed working for him and knew he was a man of integrity. Why is this personal reference to a leader I enjoyed following important? Read to the end, and you will understand.
Unfortunately, I’ve also had the miserable experience of working for some truly terrible command staff. I won’t call them leaders, and most weren’t even managers, but they occupied positions of command. The people in this category shared many of the same characteristics. They surrounded themselves with “yes-men” and wouldn’t consider views counter to their own. Their opinions were based upon making their own lives easier and keeping their positions instead of what was best for the department and the people they were supposed to serve. They were disorganized, made emotional and knee-jerk decisions and blamed others for their mistakes.
As a leader, if your primary concern is not offending others and not losing your job, you have already failed. It’s like living your life trying not to die.
There are too many contemptible people filling command positions in law enforcement today. And very few of them will ever get fired. Today, it’s not the weak leaders who get fired. Instead, if they do what they’re told by the political machine, they will keep their jobs until they retire. These people care more about surviving in their positions of power until they make it to retirement and cash out. They don’t take risks. They don’t solve problems. They’re just caretakers, and if their dignity is the price of job security, they’re happy to pay it.
Too many of our current command staff positions are filled with people who are fearful. They fear the politicians who oppose keeping our communities safe and choose to surrender to the anti-cop agenda. They fear losing power and put the safety of their position before the needs of their agency and people. Maintaining positional power is more important to them than creativity, courage and leadership. These folks might be able to preserve what their predecessors accomplished, but many barely manage to do that.
Officers and deputies
Did you think you were getting off the hook here? Not a chance. When discussing the state of leadership in law enforcement today, it’s easy to point fingers and cast blame on those who have risen through the ranks simply because there are fewer of them. They are highly visible symbolic leaders through their position, but leadership failure at the command level didn’t start there.
There are relatively few people who enter this career, take the oath and commit themselves to serve others who want to become bad leaders. As a matter of fact, even the most loathsome people I worked for during my career started with a genuine desire to do good police work, arrest bad guys and make the community better. Somewhere along the way, they lost their direction and became more interested in gaining and maintaining power. Instead of focusing on the needs of others, they became focused on their own political survival.
However, if there had been an expectation of leadership from the first day of their careers, I’m willing to bet we would have different command staff leading our law enforcement agencies. So, if you’re constantly looking up the chain of command and complaining about leadership qualities, look in the mirror and around the briefing room table. This is where the problem first started.
Depending on the region or state, your career begins the first day of academy training, the swearing-in ceremony or the first day of field training. This is the point when leadership expectations should be mandated. Instead of leadership training being something that occurs when someone is promoted, ongoing leadership training and opportunities must be an expectation for even the newest sworn officer.
The origins of the current leadership vacuum lie firmly on the shoulders of every officer, deputy, constable, agent and trooper who served in the past and serves today. Regardless of rank or position, every law enforcement officer has the responsibility to lead. We have chosen a career putting us at the front and center of society. It is a calling that carries some of the greatest responsibilities one can possess, and leadership is a core job function. We need to commit to making leadership and mentorship a primary career goal. If it’s not one of your primary goals, then you are contributing to the current leadership vacuum. You are the problem.
We need to demand excellent leadership from ourselves and our peers by supporting the expectation of peer leadership as well as leadership up the chain of command. This cultural change must occur at the department level to have a lasting effect, but we can start by demanding this of ourselves and each other.
A lot of people are put off by strong leaders, but law enforcement needs them. Strong leaders listen to different opinions but are willing to make decisions and take ownership of the outcome. To some people, the strength of character required to make hard decisions can come across as arrogance, but strong leaders know it is incumbent upon them to bear that responsibility. They are mentors, counselors, coaches and teachers. They push you to do better, which can come across as demanding, but their motives are not selfish. Strong leaders have the best interests of their people at heart. They understand the honor of being in a leadership role lies with serving others rather than their own needs or desires. They believe in the mission and stay mission-focused. They don’t pander to the ever-changing opinions of the media or politicians and stay true to the vision of having safe, livable communities.
As a leader, if your primary concern is not offending others and not losing your job, you have already failed. It’s like living your life trying not to die. If that’s all you worry about, you’re already dead. Instead, be the leader you want to follow. If you conduct yourself in your current position the same way you would want your supervisor to behave, you will be actively engaged in making your own working conditions better. As this occurs up the chain of command, each position will become stronger, and the culture of your department will improve to include leadership expectations at each level.
Earlier, I mentioned working for Sheriff John Gautney. He was one of several leaders I tried to emulate as best I could. I didn’t always succeed. In fact, I can think of several failures in my career that were all mine. However, he was someone I admired as a leader and mentor. He was a leader I wanted to serve, and hopefully, I was able to pass some of the lessons I learned from him on to those I worked with and supervised.
We owe it to those who served before us — and those who follow — to improve the culture of law enforcement. If we don’t act now to fill the leadership vacuum with strong leaders, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We are the problem, and we can provide the solution.