Good to Great: A Law Enforcement Leadership Interpretation
Jim Collins starts his book, “Good to Great,” with this simple quote: “Good is the enemy of great.” That quote struck me like a lightning bolt because, all too often, law enforcement gets stuck in the rut of thinking that good is a fine place to be. How often have you heard the phrase, “Good enough for government work” thrown around the department? We, as first-line supervisors, preach to our officers about avoiding complacency, but if we allow our squads to just be good then aren’t we exemplifying complacency in our leadership?
Whenever I read a book of this type, I am always thinking about how I can apply it in my role as a sergeant of eight officers that are within my span of influence. So, I decided that I would write this blog to share my thoughts on the major concepts described in “Good to Great” and how I see those applying to law enforcement leadership.
Before going any further, let me give you an idea of how the “Good to Great” concepts were formulated. Jim Collins and his research team conducted a detailed analysis of over 1,400 Fortune 500 companies looking for ones that demonstrated a very specific pattern of growth: At least 15 years of good results, a clear transition point, followed by at least 15 years of great results. Great results were defined as having a total stock return of at least 3 times the general market over the same period in time. Of the 1,400 companies they looked at, only 11 met that very specific criteria. They then began the lengthy process of analyzing what the distinctive traits were that those companies had in common which took them from good to great.
Now the question becomes, what does this business mumbo jumbo have to do with policing? Following the success of “Good to Great,” Jim Collins began hearing a similar question from multiple areas of social sector work – law enforcement, non-profit organizations, hospitals, education, etc. In 2005, he released a monograph (like an additional chapter) to supplement the book entitled, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors.” This supplement is geared specifically to the social sector and the unique constraints faced by these types of organizations such as hiring, firing, compensation, etc.
As he did in the original book, Jim Collins starts the monograph off with a profound statement, “We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’” Business concepts on leadership have their place, but they must be properly interpreted in order to effectively be applied in law enforcement. Law enforcement must be led in a way that only a law enforcement leader can; by someone that has handled calls, made arrests, used force, and been in situations that they will never forget. The bottom line is this . . . law enforcement measures greatness through their service to the community, not profits.
Before proceeding into the “Good to Great” framework, the question law enforcement supervisors must answer is how do you define greatness in policing at your department? What specifically defines a good officer and what specifically defines a great officer? The only way to determine that answer is to look at your department’s mission statement, goals, strategic plan, performance evaluation process, etc. and understand how those things are measured at the officer level. Once it is understood what your officers must demonstrate in order to be considered great, under the guidelines of your department, then you can proceed in applying the Good to Great concepts. Just a quick note to any chiefs or command staff that may read this . . . if you cannot define greatness in your organization in concrete detail, then neither can your officers or first-line supervisors. Honor-Initiative-Excellence are great qualities to put on the side of a patrol car or hang on a wall in the briefing room, but if you don’t define them in concrete, “this-is-what-it-looks-like” terms; then they are just words.
STAGE 1: DISCIPLINED PEOPLE
Level 5 Leadership: For a squad to go from good to great, it is first necessary for them to have what Jim Collins refers to as a Level 5 Leader at the helm. A level 5 leader is ambitious and initiative-driven when it comes to applying their department’s definition of greatness to their work as a police officer. I say police officer because regardless of rank, we all started as police officers and that is the common denominator when it comes to the reason we started in this career. Level 5 leaders demonstrate that it is more about the job and their officers than themselves. They share a passion for learning, teaching, and leading other officers in the proper way to police. Ultimately, level 5 leaders realize their success comes through making those they lead successful. (For more similar to this, see our blog entitled, “The 10 Law Enforcement Leadership Commandments.”)
First Who…Then What: The most valuable resource in a police department is not people, it is having the right people. The only way to take a squad from good to great is to have the right people on it; ones that are willing to get on board and make the transition to greatness. Unfortunately, due to the structure of police departments, we cannot always control who we have on our squads. Therefore, it is incumbent of the first-line supervisor to do everything within their power to mold their officers into being the right people. This will not always work, but it is an effort that must be made. Developing the right people can be accomplished through training, honest evaluations, handling call with them, briefing discussions, assigning them to ride with more experienced officers, good field training officers, etc. Once you have the right people on your squad, then you have to get them into the “right seats on the bus.” Assess the skills and talents that your officers possess and assign them to beats where those skills and talents can be best applied. Then, help direct those officers into specialty units that fit their skills and talents to benefit the department as a whole. (For more similar to this, see our blog entitled, “6 Ways to Positively Influence Officer Behavior.”)
STAGE 2: DISCIPLINED THOUGHT
Confront the Brutal Facts: Confronting the brutal facts is all about retaining unwavering faith in the goal of becoming great while at the same time recognizing the challenges to that goal. They may stem from the community, the department, policies, staffing, politics, compensation, or internal squad issues. You must possess the discipline to recognize your current reality and work tirelessly to improve the circumstances you find yourself in no matter the difficulties. Find like-minded individuals within the department that also have the desire to be great and collaborate with them to begin tackling the issues that you can control. Don’t waste your time on things you can’t control. Dealing with these issues will take dedication, time, and effort; but as long as your intentions are directed towards reaching the goal, the squad will come along. (For more similar to this, see our blog entitled, “Change and Reputation.”)
The Hedgehog Concept: The Hedgehog Concept has to do with having simple, basic principles for your squad to follow that support the goal of becoming great and maintaining that greatness. These principles should be the intersection of the 3 circles – what you can be the best at, what you are passionate about, and what drives your department’s vision of greatness.
The first two circles are pretty self-explanatory, but measuring a police department’s vision of greatness can be difficult because it is not as simple as measuring profits in a business. A police department’s vision of greatness comes through in their community’s perception of them. Does the community trust that the department is there to protect them and act in their best interest with the power and authority that has been granted upon them? Like the Colorado River slowly forming the Grand Canyon, the thing to remember about the Hedgehog Concept is that the simple, basic principles of your squad need to be applied and reinforced on a consistent and on-going basis. (For more similar to this, see our blog entitled, “Setting Squad Expectations: The R.I.D.E.S. Model.”)
STAGE 3: DISCIPLINED ACTION
Culture of Discipline: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. As law enforcement, we have a great deal of power and authority and we must be constantly accountable to the community we serve. There are many pressures that can instigate the slide down the slippery slope of dishonesty, malfeasance, and abuse of power. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the first-line supervisor, to nurture a culture of discipline within their squad that does the right things, at the right times, for the right reasons without emotion or prejudice and for the good of the community at-large. If a culture of discipline is set in place from the beginning, then having to deal with actual discipline will be limited to the minor mistake that can be handled and put into the past. (For more similar to this, see our blog entitled, “The 3 Accountability Relationships in Law Enforcement.”)
The Flywheel: The flywheel is about consistently applying the concepts listed above in such a way that you start the flywheel of greatness spinning. The more the above concepts are applied, the faster the wheel begins to spin, and the less effort necessary to make it continue. Eventually, so much momentum is gained that it generates its own energy. The patrol culture you create is the first-line supervisor’s version of a flywheel. By putting the time and attention necessary into nurturing the right patrol culture, the first-line supervisor can start the flywheel of greatness spinning. If focus begins to slip and the Hedgehog Concept gets muddled up, the flywheel will begin to slow and greatness will begin to slide back to good or worse. Therefore, the entire process must be internalized by the first-line supervisor and assume their role to actively lead their squads towards greatness. (For more similar to this, see our blog entitled, “A Law Enforcement Leadership Reward.”)