Leadership: Part 3

Despite what you’ve seen in books, TV, and the movies, the role of law enforcement leaders is to lead.

In addition to the mistake I covered in the last entry (leaders as doer bees), another common mistake is to depict leaders strictly as managers (and poor ones at that). What’s the difference between leaders and managers? Well, to paraphrase Norman Schwarzkopf, you manage a business, but you lead people. In any human endeavor, a leader must recognize those elements of management (say, balancing a budget) and of leadership (dealing with people). A true leader sees each of his followers as an individual and understands that each of those individuals has his/her own hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.

In police fiction, though, most police leaders are shown as managerial tyrants with a one-dimensional concern for the outcome, at any cost. We see heroes berated for not solving a case quickly enough, or in particularly unethical instances, doing too good of a job and getting too close to an uncomfortable truth, a corruption of the system that the leader is invested in protecting. In either extreme, the leader is an obstacle to the officer or detective.

These two frequent clichés probably became clichés the same way all clichés are born – because some vestige of truth existed in them at some time in our collective history. Law enforcement is still busily chugging toward being recognized as a profession in the same fashion as the medical or legal fields. We have a ways to go, certainly, but we’ve also come miles and miles from a sometimes dirty past. A bellowing leader haranguing a poor detective is the least of our sins, and so it is an image that is reluctant to die.

But is it accurate?

Not very, at least not anymore.

Do police leaders ask for, even demand, accountability? Absolutely. But not in the bombastic way often shown on page or screen. Most police leaders are far more congenial than that. Most recognize the need for a good relationship with their followers. The scenes we read about or see in TV or movies are focused on a snapshot in time. Police work in real life is an ongoing process. There will be always be another call or another case after this one. And since we already know that it won’t be the leader who does the work to handle that call or case, who will it be?

The officer or detective, of course. The leader needs them to do the work. And people don’t like it when you yell at them all the time. It doesn’t work over the long haul. Look at any professional sports coach who was a yeller. Sooner or later, they lose the ear of the locker room, and their influence diminishes (and with it, the performance of the team, incidentally).

I don’t mean to say that there isn’t the occasional butt-chewing. What I’m saying is that it is the exception, not the rule. Good leaders don’t routinely call the men and women they lead into their office to yell at them. They do something really radical instead. They talk to them.

Can you make that work in your book? I’m betting so.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank Zafiro. All rights reserved.

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