Recently, while speaking with a friend who is a fellow police chief, I asked how the new head of a neighboring jurisdiction was doing. I had not yet met this individual and knew nothing about him. After an extended pause my friend replied, with those famous, or should I say infamous words: “He’s a nice guy, a nice guy.”

I shook my head in disappointment.

Another “nice guy” had joined the ranks as a law enforcement commander. Right about now, you are probably asking yourself: “What is wrong with being a “nice guy?”  What’s necessary to understand about this topic is that being labeled a “nice guy” in that context is not an asset among law enforcement officers. It implies that you are ineffective, compliant, someone with no substance. When it comes to the demands of leadership, it simply means that you are weak.

The law enforcement officer who says that someone in a command position is a nice guy is trying to be professional and courteous, while keeping his real, negative opinions to himself. A nice guy “goes along to get along.” Unfortunately, we have enough of those in our ranks, especially at the top. In fact, far too many. It is time for a change.

 

MOST CRITICAL PLAYER

Now, more than ever, the police chief position is the most critical spot in a law enforcement agency. I did not always think that way. For years I remained prejudiced by my years in the 82nd Airborne Division, where the NCOs were the heart, soul and backbone of the unit.

Unlike many other nations’ militaries, the US is unprecedented in the degree to which much of the work, and the leadership, fall on the shoulders of the sergeants.  When I joined law enforcement, I found great similarities with the military.  Chief among them was my belief that the role of the sergeant was the most significant one in any police department, followed closely by the field training officer.

However, events over the last five years have demonstrated that without superior top-level leadership, the issues facing any department will continue to occur, and may even worsen or multiply.

The police chief sets the tone and culture for a department. If the chief is new to the department, it is his or her responsibility to improve the culture where it is lacking. The chief’s primary focus can simply be boiled down to two missions: (1) ensure the community is protected and served adequately by a professional, integrity-based and disciplined police force; and, (2) effectively lead, train, and take care of the officers under his command.

Both of these missions are constituted of many subsets or interrelated tasks and goals.  However, if you are a law enforcement leader, you are on the right path if you follow these two maxims: do not stop there; and, keep working on your craft.

 

TIME TO REST?

Some of my peers think that once they have reached the upper management levels within their agencies, they can put their feet up on the desk and relax. One of the worst consequences that befall those who attain the highest positions of command is that they, then, develop a “survivor mindset”. That is one in which they do not make any waves, avoid controversy and confrontation like the plague, and just try to hold on to the position as long as they can.

They do just enough to survive workweek after workweek; with their only goal being to make it all the way to that retirement pension. They instinctively know that it’s harder to fire a “nice guy” than a hard charger who is working tirelessly to make change – even if that change is positive in the long run.

It seems that change is usually difficult for human beings, and seldom pleasant. Which is why it requires a warrior’s mindset to effect positive change; for the person who is the impetus behind it is often unpopular – at least at first?  For these reasons, such feckless commanders become the “nice guy”: agreeable but ineffective and weak. They ignore problems inside and outside their departments, hoping they will just disappear.

This is a failing strategy, for when do problems ever disappear on their own?   They only get worse, but these ROAD-minded bureaucrats (Retired on Active Duty) hope that the problems will remain in check until after they leave the profession to rest their patrol boots on a beach in Florida or their fishing cabins.  Then the problems they ignored, or likely even created, become someone else’s.

My friend and fellow tactical instructor, retired Special Forces Sergeant Major John “Andy” Anderson, wrote in his book The Green Beret in You: Living with Total Commitment to Family, Career, Sports and Life, that “Problems are like dirty diapers: they only get worse with age.”  Those commanders who adopt policies of procrastination are selfish, and do the officers under their commands a great disservice.

Failure to embrace leadership challenges is detrimental to those officers under anyone’s command, is detrimental to the department, and breaks the public’s trust. We can and must do better.   

Police chiefs and other law enforcement leaders must develop a “thrive mindset” where they are continually reaching for excellence, not only for themselves but those around them. Crack open a book, listen to a podcast, go back to school, attend training, find a good mentor; there is no reason why you cannot improve your leadership skills.

The law, society, culture and social problems are forever changing.  Commanders must adapt to them, but the only way that can happen is by setting oneself on a never-ending path of personal growth, development, education and improvement.  No matter how many years you’ve been in law enforcement, or how many command positions you’ve held, there is information out there that you do not possess and which could and would make you a better leader, a superior version of your current self.

 

GET COMFORTABLE WITH THE UNCOMFORTABLE, BE BOLD.

That means getting out of your comfort zone.  Nothing about being a police chief or commander should ever be “comfortable”.  As a law enforcement leader, you owe it to the proud profession of policing, the men and women under your command, and the communities you serve, to master the trade and practice of leadership. And, yes, it is a practice; just as the practice of law and medicine.

Law enforcement executives must cherish and honor their positions. Police leaders have a great responsibility entrusted to them. Earn that trust every day by becoming the best possible version of yourself. Self-improvement is infectious, encouraging, and often emulated by the people around you.

Constant and consistent leadership development is the way toward organizational and community success. The path is there, but it takes courage to strive mightily to improve oneself and one’s department.

That path is never to be found with, what Pres. Teddy Roosevelt called, “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”. Those “cold and timid souls” are the “nice guys”, and there is no place for them in command of the fearless officers we lead in our law enforcement agencies. It is, indeed, time for a change.

 

“Above all, it’s about going home at the end of the shift … “

We couldn’t agree more.

 


 

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