I was promoted to lieutenant at the age of 32. At the time, I thought I was mature and fully qualified to lead a group of nearly 100 officers as a watch commander of one of the LAPD’s divisions. Looking back, I realize just how much more I needed to learn.
My captain was a wise leader. He met with me privately the first day I wore bars on my collar. He said, “Lieutenant, there’s a phrase that’s very important to all leaders. It will be especially important to you in your first assignment as a watch commander. It’s only five words. ‘Will you please help me?’ You have a group of sergeants who are very experienced. Some of them have forgotten more than you will learn about police work. Respect them. Solicit their help. Listen to them. If you do, you’ll do just fine.
Those words of counsel made all the difference. Most of the sergeants on my watch did have much more experience than I. I’m sure they were wondering how this new “boy lieutenant” would lead them. Thanks to my captain’s advice, I began asking for their help.
Advice in Action
Several months later, I was in uniform on my way to a dinner appointment, driving a marked police car. Suddenly, I saw a black mushroom cloud lifting up from the Pasadena Freeway near Dodger Stadium. It did not look good. I exited the freeway at Stadium Way, driving toward the fire. A civilian had arrived ahead of me and was just exiting his car when I pulled up. I could see the wreckage of a helicopter between the freeway and the stadium hill. We both ran to the wreckage in a rescue attempt. It was futile. All three occupants were obviously deceased.
I began requesting assistance via the police radio. At about that time, another citizen asked if I was aware of a second downed helicopter 200 yards away. Moments later, I learned the sad truth that the second airship was one of our police helicopters and that both officers had been killed instantly. It had been a mid-air collision.
Within minutes, emergency crews were arriving. Fortunately, one of them was one of my senior sergeants, who had experience dealing with aircraft crashes. I remember saying something like, “Man, am I ever glad to see you. Looks like I am at least temporarily in charge here. Will you please help me?” Of course he jumped right in and soon helped me organize crews of officers and firefighters to locate debris from the crash scattered over a large area.
Later, my captain arrived along with other officials. The big bosses were pleased at the way the tragedy was being managed. I confessed to my boss that his wise words of advice made it all possible.
The principle is sound. As a leader, respect and rely on knowledge those around you have, regardless of rank. In so doing, you establish a climate that encourages people to share their expertise. Be a good listener. Don’t make people who offer input or ideas look foolish, even if you choose not to use their suggestions.
The amount of information you can gather prior to taking action depends on the circumstances. In the police profession, some situations require immediate decisions and will offer little time, if any, for counsel or advice. In many cases, you’ll be able to get some input. When you can, do so.
Publically demonstrate gratitude to those who contribute their ideas and expertise. Leaders who take all the credit for ideas or actions of their followers soon lose the willing participation of those people. Someone once said, “Good leaders take less of their share of the glory and more of their share of the blame.”
Inappropriately delaying or not making a decision is a decision. Some leaders purposely force someone else to make the tough choice and perhaps later even criticize that choice. That’s not leadership. Leadership is making the tough decisions even when you can’t get all of the facts.
A leader can’t delegate their responsibility. Seeking the counsel or help from others doesn’t remove responsibility from the leader. Counsel from one with more expertise is often helpful, but can be unacceptable for a variety of reasons. At the end of the day, the leader owns their decision—on point.
Former Assistant Police Chief Vernon supervised all departmental police operations for Los Angeles’ 18 police stations. Chief Vernon is an author, speaker, and consultant who speaks on the need for change in the moral fabric of our nation. Chief Vernon has presented leadership and ethics seminars to the military and police leaders in foreign governments and seven foreign parliaments.