The Legacies of Leaders
Photo Courtesy: HBO
Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers chronicles Easy Company, 101st Airborne Division during World War II. A good read in its own right, the book then morphed into an HBO mini-series. It’s become one of my favorite training aides for topics such as leadership, decision-making and mindset.
Truth to Power
One segment of Band of Brothers focuses on the troops’ assault against the German-occupied city of Foy. It opens with a meeting between Capt. Dick Winters and First Sgt. Lipton the night before the attack. Winters asks for Lipton’s assessment of the troops’ combat readiness. In a true “truth-to-power” moment, the sergeant relates that the men are ready but have no confidence in the current company commander, Lt. Norman Dike. This is a courageous step on Lipton’s part. Under different circumstances he might have been disciplined.
Winters is faced with a dilemma. He knows the truth of Lipton’s words, but the assault will start soon. Before the combat begins, Winters coaches Dike on what to do. However, as the attack starts, He mentally and physically freezes up as around him soldiers are being wounded and killed. The phrase “overcome by events” is a relevant descriptor for Dike’s condition; his brain has clearly taken a combat dump. He won’t get on the radio to talk with Capt. Winters, he yells at the sergeants asking for decisions and then when pressed, comes up with an alternate attack plan that’s lacking in tactical thought and creativity.
Seeing this unfold, Winters finds a competent combat officer, Lt. Ronald Speirs, and orders him to relieve Dike and jumpstart the attack. In classic infantry officer “follow me” fashion, Speirs runs through enemy fire to reach Easy Company’s position. He takes charge, immediately making sound tactical decisions. His presence revitalizes the assault, driving the Germans from the town and saving lives.
Accounts like this aren’t surprising given the courage, trauma and danger of combat. Although smaller in scale and impact, similar events have taken place in law enforcement. You may have been through a few or perhaps witnessed others (e.g., the North Hollywood Shootout). Regardless of where or when, the critical factors are leadership, decision-making and mindset.
An LE trainer can play a significant role in how personnel respond to the next challenge, whether it’s a critical incident or an everyday patrol problem. So let’s begin with leadership. As an instructor you’re a leader. Some of you may not realize it or even want such a role, but to one degree or another, it’s your job: A leader is a person who influences a group of people toward the achievement of a goal.
How you choose to pursue this responsibility is yours. Even though police work often consists of individual actions, a trainer has the opportunity to be a good leader while setting the standard for others. Years ago I read The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership by William F. Cohen. It became a leadership bible for me. I bought into the author’s eight basic tenets:
- Maintain absolute integrity—I don’t think this needs explanation—does it?
- Know your stuff—An LE leader should be competent and knowledgeable, but they don’t have to be the expert in all topics. Take the time to properly school and prepare yourself, but also keep your ego in check so you know the limits of your knowledge.
- Declare your expectations—Instructors can make a difference by just setting standards of behavior.
- Show uncommon commitment—Good trainers are committed to expanding the knowledge and abilities of their students. While working the streets, these men and women will depend upon what they’re taught. It’s a trainer’s mission to go the distance in helping students learn.
- Expect positive results—I’m constantly pleased and even amazed by the capacity of good cops—in classroom settings as well as on the street—to respond to challenges in a positive fashion. The mirror image of this: Our students also want positive results from us. They come to class with an expectation that their time will not be wasted.
- Take care of your people—Aside from ensuring their safety, educating the student is the most important goal. Strive for a thorough, up-to-date transference of information. Taking care of them also means teaching students what they need to hear, and not just what they may want to hear.
- Put duty before self—Respected instructors share a common passion to pass on lessons learned. Recently, I was helping out one of my heroes, Lt. Ed Deuel, Huntington Beach PD (ret.), on a long day of police recruit scenario training in hot weather, wearing Simunitions safety gear. A veteran who’s earned his tremendous respect, Deuel could have been stretched out by his pool, drinking a cold beverage. Instead, as we trained he testified to the recruits with intense passion about his lessons learned. He told them that this training was “a gift”: They had the opportunity to make serious mistakes in a training environment. Had they done so in real situations, the negative outcomes—their own death, shooting the wrong person, failing to act when a fellow officer is wounded—would be devastating. Having experienced similar fates through controlled training, they’re better prepared. On that day, Ed Deuel put his duty as a leader—and a trainer—before his own interests.
- Get out in front—If you teach a particular skill set or technique, then be prepared to get out in front of your students and demonstrate it. This is so basic and yet, there are trainers who teach a shooting technique but pass on the opportunity to do so in front of their students.
Consider these criteria. Do the leaders at your agency exhibit these attributes? Now shift the focus to the person you see in the mirror each morning. Although it’s a relatively remote possibility that a convergence of bad things on a Band of Brothers scale will come your way, you’re a cop. At all levels of police work, every day holds a leadership challenge—but especially as a trainer.
The basics of decision-making are pretty clear: Is the course of action ethical, legal and within policy, based on common sense and—if applicable—tactically sound? Correct answer: All of the above.
Trainers who develop such a decision-making process in the minds of their students are in short supply. The daily headlines punctuate this fact with law enforcement’s mistakes and sins.
But to illustrate a point, let’s go back to the City of Foy. Lt. Dike’s decision-making was deadly in its deficiencies. As depicted in the HBO series, his demeanor masked his incompetence until the moment of truth. Then his brain failed to process what was happening and make decisions. His legacy was to be defined as a historical figure who was overcome by the events around him—freezing rather than taking action, yelling at subordinates rather than giving orders. Lt. Dike didn’t function within the decision-making standards required of a leader.
But Dike is symptomatic of a greater failure. Beyond his sins, there’s a larger culprit to be considered: the U. S. Army. During World War II, “90-Day Wonder” lieutenants were being flushed out of officer candidate schools to fill the need of combat commands around the world. The army didn’t always have adequate time to develop them for the decision-making ahead, let alone under the stress of combat. Lt. Dike wasn’t the only one who failed.
It’s a lesson that resonates today: By definition, an LE agency is made up of decision-makers from bottom to top. With the sure and certain reality of future critical incidents, agencies should recognize that unless all ranks are developed into critical thinkers who produce good decisions, their legacy—and the department’s—may parallel Lt. Dike’s.
Rank by itself doesn’t create good decision-makers, nor does good luck in handling a crucial incident equate with good decision-making. The potential price of injured and dead is too great for a dedicated LE trainer to ignore. If your agency doesn’t currently train to a sufficient level in this area, become an advocate, be a leader.
We close with the most important aspect of Lt. Dike’s parable—mindset. Here’s a question: Does the phrase “modern warrior” exist somewhere in your lesson plans? I don’t care what your topic is. Take the opportunity to include this important element.
If the topic is first aid, add what to do if wounded and faced with fighting it out or giving up to death. Teaching ethics? Discuss how our profession is the shield that protects those who deserve it—even at the risk of personal physical harm. Use of force training? We do so only within policy and the law. But must use force reasonably, quickly and even violently if justified to end the suspect’s resistance. Bottom line: Mindset is of the essence.
What’s Your Legacy?
Lt. Dike has long since passed. I have to wonder if at some point before the end, he recognized his failure. It’s clear that while serving with a courageous group of men, his lack of leadership, good decision-making and a modern warrior outlook has become a legacy that none of us wants to repeat.
Train Safe. God bless America.