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Inviting Leaders to Look Inward: A Day with Chiefs of Police

A gracious invitation from the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police permitted me the privilege of presenting at their 2019 annual conference. I enjoyed participating in group sessions and interacting one-on-one with numerous law enforcement leaders representing 130 municipalities throughout the state.

I spoke on “Building Emotional Maturity in the Ranks, Beginning with the Leader,” and focused on helping the chiefs build stronger relationships with their officers. While this address was tailored to police chiefs, the points are equally important for leaders of any organization to consider.

Emotional Maturity

An important dimension of emotional maturity is taking responsibility for your own part in any problem that occurs within your work group, family, community, or nation. I chose this topic because responsibility is the opposite of blame, and blame stands in the way of solutions.

The most spirited conversation at the conference centered on the clash of values and work ethics when supervising young police officers.

Many of the chiefs believe that newly appointed officers operate with an air of entitlement. Several pointed to the “relaxed work ethic” of young deputies. Their juniors' preference for working fewer hours puzzled them.

“When I was a young cop, I took as many hours as I could get,” commented one police chief,

"I had a young family, and I would never pass up an opportunity for overtime. We can’t fill overtime slots anymore – young officers want to be with their families and friends, not earning money.”

Frustrations like this, though understandable, imply blame.

Having spoken with hundreds of young leaders in the past decade, I’ve learned that many have watched with sadness as their older family members made work a higher priority than family connection and personal health. Could it be that young police officers have a more balanced view of life and work than their superiors?

To add a twist -- and to reinforce the point that we all have a part to play in what bothers us -- I asked the chiefs how they contributed to the entitlement of their own children. The room vibrated with nervous laughter.

A second issue the chiefs raised was young officers’ resistance to accountability.

“They seem to take accountability personally. One of my young officers consistently

writes the fewest tickets in the department. He stops people and lets them off.

When I talk to him about it, he says the union will support him. I’m stuck with him.”

Accountability questions

This raises questions:

Is the problem that young officers don’t want to be held accountable, or that their leaders have not found a reasonable and effective way to do it?

To what meaningful standards do law enforcement leaders hold themselves accountable? How do they respond when their bosses assess them?

Does what police chiefs call, “protecting our own” include protection from accountability? When does sticking up for a fellow officer make sense and when does it become questionable?

Entitlement and resistance to accountability can be mitigated when chiefs initiate open interactions and build stronger connections with those they supervise. Honest, person-to-person conversation includes mutual disclosures about self, purposeful listening, and discovering more about another’s background and worries.

Well-connected relationships give leaders more credibility to influence their followers.

Knowing and being known

I continued to engage the chiefs to consider their own part in perpetuating the impasses they described.

One example that resonated with attendees was a quote from Dr. Janet Mann, a global expert on the behavior of bottlenose dolphins:

"Every single dolphin is distinct in how they hunt, distinct in how they socialize,

distinct in how they care for young. So when people ask, "What are dolphins like?" I say, "Which one?”

I invited the chiefs to take a lesson from Dr. Mann and operate more from a “Which one?" mindset when interacting with not only new recruits and "repeat offenders" but with anyone in their circle of contacts who looks, thinks, and acts “differently.”

Like most leaders, the focus of police chiefs is often answering questions and offering solutions. That’s important, but it’s not enough. If leaders want to inspire and promote the growth of those in their charge, they must allow themselves to be known and understood. That requires sharing thoughts, personal experiences, even fears.

Pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen said, “One of the biggest illusions of life is that siblings know each other.”

Cannot the same be said of us in our relationships with direct reports, peers, bosses?

Seizing opportunities to learn and connect -- to know and be known -- gives leaders a big edge when guiding others and building a workplace culture.

My focus: A relationship profession

Another observation I noted drew widespread agreement:

Policing is a relationship profession. In the main, it’s about connecting with people,

both internally and in the community. How can we expect to perform at a high level

if we are not well connected with our employees and constituents?

“You said exactly what we’re trying to teach,” a police training coordinator told me on a break. “The relationship between chiefs and their officers is critical, and we’re really working on getting that message across.”

That’s important, because the relationship between chiefs and officers impacts the way officers perform in the community. The stakes are high.

Family applications

In private conversations, the chiefs shared their interest in applying emotional maturity to their own family lives, something I hear often from earnest leaders in every profession.

For example, one chief was looking for ways to connect with a brother he hasn’t spoken to in six years. Another wondered if there was any better way to navigate an impasse with his 20-something, drug-using son. I found sincerity in those discussions, along with understandable frustration, but more importantly, a desire to self-reflect. That's a great start.

My participation with the New York State Chiefs of Police illustrated a cornerstone of high-maturity leadership: When the behavior of someone in your family or workforce drives you nuts, look first at yourself.

How might you be perpetuating the behavior you despise by reacting before thinking, failing to connect, discounting other viewpoints, keeping your distance, fearing honest self-disclosure, or holding on to the mindset that “they’re all the same?”

Thanks to Larry Eggert, former Chief of Police in Lockport, NY, for his kind invitation, and for the receptivity and dialogue that emerged from my time with these dedicated law enforcement leaders!

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