There is, perhaps, no greater honor earned than being chosen to lead others. It signifies our agencies trust our decision making, policy interpretation and principles.
Leaders affect all aspects of an organization, and as agencies around the country compete for a diminishing pool of suitable applicants, an agency’s leadership qualities help applicants decide which to join. In fact, leadership often becomes the deciding factor when potential employees are choosing an agency. How the current roster of commissioned officers feels about their leadership is widely known in the community, and people thinking about applying for vacancies will surely learn of those feelings.
Perhaps more importantly, leadership also plays a role in the retention of your current ranks. Low morale within the department, which is most often related to leadership issues, is like a cancer. It not only erodes the agency from within but either prevents the development of the healthy growth that accompanies new hires or quickly poisons the attitudes of those who do join its ranks.
In business, leadership affects profit, productivity and human relations. But in the world of law enforcement, leadership has a direct impact on lives. Not only the lives of those we serve, but the lives of those who serve the people, our nation’s law enforcement officers.
The topic of police leadership is without a doubt the most frequently discussed factor of police operations spanning every level of all law enforcement organizations. However, the viewpoints and concerns of upper-level cops often conflict with those who actually perform the enforcement/service functions—the line officers and first-line supervisors. While the characteristics and theories of leadership will forever be a matter of individual opinion and constant debate, until certain common leadership values can be embraced by all levels, agencies are forever doomed to an environment of distrust and an absence of unity.
Who bears responsibility for generating positive change? And what must they do to nurture those changes?
Unquestionably, the top leadership of our law enforcement organizations must step forward with courage and humility and declare that the law enforcement mission is too important to the security of our country to risk failure, and that they’ll do everything necessary to ensure all who serve in law enforcement will be guided by selfless and ethical principles.
While this may sound idealistic, it’s actually a strategy that we, as a society, have employed for almost all of the most important decisions in our personal lives. It’s a simple yet sacred statement that embodies the best of human intentions—a promise. A promise takes many forms throughout our lives. From youthful shared secrets to our wedding vows to our oaths of office, we hold dear the value of a promise.
As a young police officer, I yearned to believe in the dedication, fairness and ethical values of those who held positions of leadership within my organization. On more than one occasion I was disappointed. All too often, I’ve shared the disillusionment of my coworkers as those who I thought would make positive changes as they rose through the supervisory ranks adopted the very characteristics they themselves had vocally protested when they were line officers.
Although it takes years in most organizations to rise to positions of leadership, the memories of coworkers last a lifetime, so leaders must fully understand that the ethics and integrity they displayed as officers will follow them forever. Respect is something to be earned, and those who desire positions of leadership must accept that the surest way to sabotage the development of respect is to appear hypocritical.
I remember a high-ranking officer who, while speaking to a group of new sergeants at a leadership training session, spoke at length about treating subordinates with respect and dignity. Yet in his own dealings with some of the same supervisors attending the class, he was well known to be insulting and demeaning.
As I grew into a position to lead others, I came to believe that I, as well as every leader in a law enforcement organization from a field training officer to the chief, owe a set of 10 promises to those we lead. And I believe we must live up to these promises if we are to truly honor our leadership role:
1. I promise to treat you with respect and dignity regardless of rank or position.
2. I promise to be fair and impartial in matters of discipline and reward.
3. I promise to recognize your achievements and acknowledge your accomplishments.
4. I promise to keep your confidences.
5. I promise to understand that decisions made in the field are often arrived at during difficult, complicated situations, and that even if I might not personally agree with your decision, as long as it is reasonable, I will not criticize or second-guess you.
6. I promise to do my best to help you grow professionally.
7. I promise to care about you both as a person and as a law enforcement officer.
8. I promise to understand that mistakes and misjudgments are a part of life and to be careful of overreaction to either.
9. I promise to be accountable for my own actions and to take responsibility and ownership for my decisions whether things go right or not.
10. I promise to understand the law enforcement mission and to do my best to fulfill it.
Regardless of rank or position, law enforcement requires extraordinary dedication and commitment. The men and women who each day must face the physical, emotional and spiritual dangers of the job have a right to believe their leadership cares about them and values them as human beings as well as employees. They have a right to believe their leadership embraces strong ethical values, just as law enforcement leaders have a right to expect that their officers are committed to the organization and concepts of loyalty and commitment to justice.
That is the promise we owe each other.
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