“We eat our own,” he said.
I clearly recall my former chief making this comment several years ago. Law enforcement has a tendency to embrace the negative and minimize the positive when it comes to our own people, he was saying. This would seem out of place in a profession that claims to encourage personnel to improvise and empower them with autonomy.
While at the ILEETA (International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association) conference, I had lunch with a trainer who’s been in law enforcement for almost 30 years, having spent 20 of those years patrolling one of America’s most crime-ridden cities. He’s earned his stripes. Now approaching the big “R” in life—retirement—he was noticeably negative about his agency and his current role. He clearly felt he’d been relegated to a position of irrelevance. As we talked, he showed me a small booklet entitled 48 Laws of Power and said he wished he’d understood the first law when he began his career. “What’s that first law?” I asked.
“Never outshine the master,” he said. In other words, don’t look better than your boss or else you’ll pay the price.
I have to admit to being initially a little skeptical but then I remembered the comment about “eating our own” from my former chief. I thought back on the people I’d known over the years who’d been taken for granted or held back by their agency. As the week at ILEETA unfolded, I became aware of several superb trainers who’d been minimized or outright disenfranchised by agencies that they’d served for most of their adult lives. How could this be? Why do we do this?
Let Them Shine
I’ll acknowledge up front that there’s a certain degree of human nature involved and this tendency isn’t entirely unique to LE. In fact, there’s even a relevant Biblical reference (John 4:44): “A prophet has no honor in his own land.” Maybe we’re just hardwired to embrace the negative and slow to acknowledge the positive, let alone believe that someone with whom we work with might actually be really good at what they do. As a sage once told me, “No one shoots at a burned-out light bulb.”
I kept reflecting on what the 30-year veteran had said about outshining the master and how it could deal a death blow to your career. Are there really LE leaders out there who are so insecure, so self-indulgent, that instead of supporting individual growth, they stifle and discourage? Unfortunately, I’ve concluded the answer is yes.
This is wrong. It counters everything that good leadership demands. Those who have a position of authority have a responsibility to their subordinates and their organization to encourage development of expertise. They must expand skill sets to improve the overall capabilities of the agency. Rather than feel threatened because they might not know as much as a developing specialist, leaders should recognize talent, hard work and creative energy. Doing so motivates others, and nothing improves the reputation of an agency more than quality people with specialized skills that can benefit other departments when needed.
This is doubly true of trainers. If you have a valuable resource within your agency—and most of us do—let them shine.
Think of individual proficiency and capability as a resource that can pay tremendous dividends—not as competition. Give your personnel opportunities for growth and exposure, and they’ll reward you with loyalty and productivity. When they begin to flourish, encourage them to train others and share their expertise. Rather than feeling threatened, leaders should be proudly promoting those who excel. Doing otherwise isn’t only selfish and short-sighted, it’s foolish.
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