What I Learned When I Listened to My Officers

Eight years into my career with Madison, I requested a six-month leave of absence without pay. I was tired and everyone around me knew it.

When the press I asked why I requested a leave, I said it was to write a book… But others around me knew otherwise. The speculation was that I was done. An anonymous source within the police department was quoted as saying,

“Couper won’t be back. He has talked a lot about teaching and writing, and I don’t think he’ll be back.”[1]

A day later I had to defend my request to inquiring reporters.

“After eight years, I think six months is a reasonable rest for a police chief in Madison… It’s a question of whether the people of Madison want a police chief with a heart attack, a police chief with a lot of other problems. I need this rest to be more creative and an even better executive. I am in tune with myself enough to know when it was time to take a break.”[2]

As it turned out, writing, skiing, connecting with friends I hadn’t seen for a while, and meeting some new ones, made all the difference in the world. It was time to recharge my batteries… Three months later, I surprised everyone and returned to full duty.

Upon my return, I started thinking about leadership—my leadership. Couldn’t I do better? I needed to find out. And the optimum way to find out was to ask those whom I was responsible for leading…

After talking with my wife, Sabine, who was very familiar with the workings of the department, she suggested I hold a number of employee meetings in which I would be there not to talk, but to listen.

I did so and asked each and every member of the department in these groups what they thought the biggest problem facing the department was. The answer was clear, direct, and unanimous—ME.  I was the problem…

Those small group meetings with every employee of the department were brutal, but absolutely necessary. If I had not done it, I never would have seen my vision come to fruition. And without this scanning and listening to employees, the changes I implemented never would have lasted beyond my tenure…”

When I asked my officers about what they would need from me in order to implement a new leadership style (Quality Leadership), this is what they told me:

  1. We need support from above, especially from you.
  2. Leaders must practice what they preach.
  3. Leaders must trust our decision-making ability.
  4. Our present leadership style is stagnant, we need to change to keep up.
  5. The only way we will get creativity, pride, and an improved workplace is by using Quality Leadership.
  6. This would yield tremendous results in the workplace, there will be negative implications if we don’t.
  7. Let us share in decision-making and we will have success and pride in the results.

[Feedback to me from department employees orientation sessions on how we can make the new leadership work, 1986-87.]


[The above narrative was from Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police (2012)]

[1] The Capital Times, December 11, 1980.

[2] The Wisconsin State Journal, December 12, 1980