There is a leadership problem. I hear this statement over and over and it is not limited to law enforcement. I am convinced it exists worldwide because most people don’t even know what it is. Why is it that for a problem that has probably affected most people, we spend so little effort trying to figure out the problem? If you have ever sat under a good leader, you know it or come to recognize it after it is gone. For those who have participated in sports and have been driven hard to succeed for the team by the coach, you may have come to appreciate the leadership after the season was over. So, what is the thing that makes a good leader and what can we do to become one?
First you must understand that leadership is not a position. I think one of the reasons we have such a leadership problem is that we fail to see leadership because we are looking in the wrong place and wait to develop it too late. In many places we mistake leadership as management. Management of people, when undeveloped, thrusts additional responsibility and demands on those people without the tools to lead. That new manager is now scrambling to “prove” themselves because they want to succeed without knowing what success is. I have lived that scenario and understand how easy it is to be set up to fail.
Leadership is not a position, it is a disposition. Leadership is about serving and helping others succeed. It is not about power but influence and that is not taught in many places. Everyone wants to succeed but we often have not learned what success is. Left without that definition, we turn inward and look for how we get recognized. In supervision, I have seen this manifest itself in numbers because that is an easy measurement when there is no other. How many tickets, arrests, reports or traffic stops have been completed? That leads those under that command to turn inward. But is this leadership and service? From the line officer to the chief, service to those under you and around you are the sign of leadership. The chief or other administrator must balance their boss, the public, and the media without leaving their subordinates feeling as if they are on their own and that they don’t have their support. It is sad the number of chiefs that have received no confidence votes from subordinates. Is it any wonder that we can’t recruit or retain people in law enforcement? How can they teach their people to be servants if they don’t serve? Service means caring for your people, knowing them, preparing them, backing them, influencing and teaching them. Teach them to be servants to those they work with and those they meet. People imitate what they see.
But what about the line officer? The chiefs and administrators are the ones who receive the greatest amount of attention in law enforcement circles but what about that line officer? Why should leadership apply to them? For the same reasons as the supervisors. In many places, police departments have received a “no confidence vote”. The line officer must care for, know, prepare, influence and teach the people they serve with the goal of being a public servant. That concept of public servant may seem weak to some but there is incredible courage in being a servant and one that causes one to look outside themselves.
So, when do we start leadership training? Leadership training should start on day one in any new position. For law enforcement it should start in the interview process or certainly in the academy. The FTO should not only be a leader but begin training the new officer on day one on the streets. When you are looking for the new FTO or supervisor, those qualities should be front and center in the process of selection and if done correctly, the basics should be there from their recruitment and training to work with people on the streets.
Where you lead they will follow. Once you learn that leadership is service and influence, no matter what position you hold, you will have people willing to follow.
The impact that servant leadership has on a department and community is observable. For those that care to continue this journey consider a good read in Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute. The results of this journey are contagious.
Tim Barfield is in his 35th year as a police officer. He started as a police officer in a rural village before transferring to an inner ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He spent 32 years in that department gaining experience in many areas of police work. In 2014, he accepted a position as police chief for another department. He is a husband, father and grandfather who has a love for police work and police officers with a goal of helping them succeed in a great profession. His responsibilities and desires have included patrol, traffic, DARE, SWAT, training and supervision. He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. He continues to learn and instruct on subjects with an emphasis on awareness, police survival mindset and ethics.