Needed: A New Kind of Police Leadership

The New Leadership

Leadership is like the weather. Everyone complains about it, but no one does anything about it! This is not a new problem. Thousands of years ago, the philosopher Lao Tzu wrote the following about leadership. It is still valid today — especially for work like policing that depends strongly upon collaborative teamwork between police officers and the community.

Good leaders are best when people barely know they exist

Not so good when people proclaim and obey them

Worse when they despise them

But of good leaders who talk little

When work is done, their aim fulfilled

Workers will say, “We did it ourselves!”

Lao Tzu’s wisdom transcends both time and culture. And as often as I hear those in the workforce complain about the way in which they are treated by their bosses, I see little effort to effectively change it. I mean, wasn’t that what unions were supposed to do? Now, today, their voice for change will be disregarded as collective bargaining falls by the wayside.

In my book, Arrested Development: One Man’s Lifelong Mission to Improve Our Nation’s Police, scheduled to be released in early 2012, I outline my own personal development as a leader and the influence those outside of police work, like Dr. Tom Gordon had on me especially regarding the destructive effect of using coercion as a leadership style. Gordon concluded:

“The use of coercive power causes people to reduce their upward communication in an organization. It can also cause people to engage in rivalry and competitiveness, and to rebel and withdraw. The use of coercive power costs the leader in time, enforcement, alienation, stress and, eventually, diminishing influence with employees” (Leadership Effectiveness Training).                          

I noted in my book that the coercive model had become our nation’s standard leadership model; the way most of us have experienced leadership in our lives. Therefore, unless a conscious effort is made to change it, its use will continue.

But to continue the coercive model is to pay a great price. I wrote, “We can learn to do things better and more effectively. The problem is that if we continue to use coercive leadership in our nation’s institutions we all will pay a tremendous cost in the long run because it creates barriers to workplace creativity, innovation, and quality service. The accumulative negative effect of coercion to lead our nation’s workers, especially the police, is incalculable. The use of coercion to lead is simply wrong and should not be tolerated in any American police organization or in any police training facility. There are better ways to lead—and an educated police will know this…”

After years of fighting with the police union (and making ample use of coercion), I decided it was time to change, for us to come together – to share leadership. The result was that even today, that particular style of leadership we implemented called “Quality Leadership” is still evident in the Madison Police Department.  For example, in the years since my retirement, the president of the police union still is a member of the chief’s management team. Who said transformative change cannot last?

While you, the public, may want to lump police together with the military, and think that our police departments should be run like infantry battalions, please think again. The facts are that police are not nor should they ever be so regarded. Police and soldiers are very different. We should not expect police leaders to act like Prussian generals and disregard the needs of, and input from, those whom they are responsible to lead. This is because today’s police officers are smarter and they need to be led as intelligent adults who can identify and solve organizational and community problems. I maintain that this would more quickly happen if their leaders would only ASK and LISTEN to what they have to say.

But, of course, if the coercive way is not abandoned in both the day-to-day operations of a police department and in the training academy, there will be little asking or listening or improving going on.

I maintain that what is needed is a new leadership called “Quality Leadership.” We developed it in Madison during the 1980s. It would work in every kind of organization and I discuss it at length in my book.

Today’s police need to reconsider their commitment to coercion as a leadership style. My book will help them do this.

            p.s. You may also want to take a look at a video of a 20 minute talk I gave about LEADERSHIP at the 9th Annual Fighting Bob Fest in the fall of 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n11srmeXXjw