Leadership Personality

What’s the biggest obstacle to overcome in order for you to lead effectively? It’s not budgets. It’s not educational restrictions. It’s not having the wrong people to lead. It’s not having a lousy boss yourself. It’s not the money you make or the assignment you’re given. Although all of these may be challenges, the greatest, most formidable obstacle to overcome so you can truly lead is one thing … your personality.

I’ve written about this before in other venues, but the more I read, learn and experience, and the more seminars I facilitate about leadership, the more convinced I am that personality is the greatest obstacle to becoming an effective leader.

Purpose of a Police Supervisor

In our Finding the Leader in You seminar, at the very start, I ask all in the room to list the primary purpose of a police supervisor, emphasizing that I’m looking for a purpose for the existence of the position—not a trait. I tell them to name three, then prioritize them in one minute. In most seminars, we have line-level officers, non-supervisors in the class who also complete the exercise.

When all are done, I begin pointing to random people and asking them to give me their law enforcement rank and answers in priority. Supervisors’ answers go on one flip-chart while non-supervisors’ answers go on another. Responses you would expect are on the supervisors’ list: “lead by example,” “make them work,” “mentor,” “coach,” “counsel,” “make sure paperwork is complete” and “train and discipline” are common. If the supervisor is higher in rank, his answers usually include, “budget,” “manpower,” “allocation,” “vision” and “delegation.”

I love this quick exercise because it starts a conversation when I point out the priorities and purposes on the chart from the non-supervisors’ list. Always, and I mean always, the following things make the list: “make a decision,” “train,” “be involved,” “mentor,” “walk the talk,” “don’t be a hypocrite,” “lead by example,” “integrity,” “know who I am,” “say positive things,” “give recognition,” “know what’s important” and “tell me what to do.”

After examining that list, I ask this simple question: What are these people saying? Somebody shouts out immediately: “They want to be led.”

My follow-up to the non-supervisors:
“Is that what you want, leadership?” And their collective response is, “Yes.” Sometimes, someone will add: “The right kind of leadership, not micromanagement.”

At the end of that conversation, I ask the supervisors to look at the three things they wrote down because I want to make two points:

  1. How many of you wrote down, “Making sure my officers go home at night?” or, “Officer safety?”
  2. It doesn’t matter what you wrote down. What matters: what would the people who work for you write down if I asked them to name your top three priorities?

From about 2002 to 2007 I conducted a survey in many of my line-level courses. I had 2,000 responses to the 15-question survey, and they were, for the most part, open-ended and non-multiple choice. My favorite question was question 13: What is the most important thing to your immediate supervisor in terms of your day-to-day activities and behavior?

To my shock, the No. 1 answer by approximately 45% of those 2,000 respondents was some form of, “Stay out of trouble.” Variations were, “Avoid citizen complaints,” “Don’t piss anybody off” and, “I don’t want to hear anything negative from citizens today.”

My follow-up question to the group is always: “So what’s the best way to stay out of trouble?” The collective answer: “Don’t do anything.”

The problem with the don’t-do-anything plan is that it runs smack dab into the No. 2 most popular answer: Activity (stats, numbers, tickets, quotas, something-I-can-measure-at-the-end-of-the-month, etc.).

Now look at the conundrum here. What’s the mission of almost half the police officers hitting the street? And I mean mission, not the thing hanging on a wall that no one can recite. The mission is what officers think they are supposed to be doing when they hit the street. Well, they know they have to do something, but the important thing is not pissing anybody off while doing it.

That’s the mission for a large number of officers patrolling America’s streets: do something but don’t get any complaints while doing it.

And where, pray tell, do they get this mission? Easy: from the people who are supposed to be leading them.

The percentage of officers who said their safety was the top priority of their immediate supervisors? Approximately 3%. Three percent!

Don’t Let Ego Get in the Way

My father—and I talk about this in every single leadership class—provided me with one of life’s “sliding-door” moments. After making sergeant, I drove to his house to show off my shiny new gold badge. An ex-Chicago cop and an opinionated Irishman, he took me aside and dispensed some sage advice.

“Listen Sarge, the only reason you exist is to help your officers do their jobs!” he said with more emotion than I could remember him ever showing. “You take care of your people. That’s your damn job now! They didn’t invent sergeants because they needed to put stripes on some sleeves! You exist to help your officers do their jobs, so they have to trust you.”

This is a real conversation that I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but I was taken aback by his emotion and determination to make me understand. He continued, “You work for your officers; they don’t work for you! You’re in charge, you have authority, but you most certainly work for them. Your job now is to help them do theirs.”

Final Notes

Do you have any idea how many management, leadership and general supervisory books and seminars there are out there? Never in our law enforcement history have we had more managers holding bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, The FBI National Academy, The Southern Police Institute and many other highly recognized institutions are educating and graduating police managers at a record pace. So what’s the problem? Why do we still have so many lousy leaders?

Personality. Apparently, you can’t easily educate the ego out of someone.

I worked with, or for, supervisors that sometimes I hated and sometimes I felt sorry for. Some seemed like they wanted to improve. They were intelligent, driven and deliberate in thinking at times. Sometimes they seemed to care deeply for the people who worked for them, and at other times they seemed to view those same people as a necessary evil. What kept getting in their way was personality.

Personal assessment and evaluation are difficult but must be done. Assessment needs to be a constant. Ask yourself which parts of your natural personality are an asset and which parts simply make you an ass. Overcome your shortcomings, and recognize what stops you from succeeding. That doesn’t mean you don’t discipline and sometimes fire those who need it. But if your personality stops you from leading, you will never succeed at your primary job: helping them do theirs.


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