In 1896, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, left a legacy known throughout the world. He used his vast fortune to create something that would come to symbolize and celebrate the greatest scientific and social achievements of man in the 20th century and beyond. The Nobel Peace Prize is even today considered one of history’s greatest achievements, and the idea behind its development has lived on through many generations.
Without a doubt, the financial rewards to the recipients of Nobel’s grand award act as a fuel to further the idea that brought about its birth. But his true legacy was not his tremendous wealth. His true legacy was the ideals he believed in so strongly, his belief that man should be celebrated for his contributions to his fellow man. That was the true legacy of Alfred Nobel.
Many years ago, I too was left a legacy by a man whose ideals would come to touch the lives of many people he would never know. I was a young police officer who believed more in the strength of my badge than in the heart that beat behind it. My world consisted of two distinct colors then, and they were shaded only by statutes and ordinances. I led the department in arrests and am probably still remembered for issuing a speeding ticket to a nun who believed that when she drove onto the property of the convent with me in pursuit, “sanctuary” applied. I was only too happy to prove otherwise. I worked tirelessly to stamp out crime and transgression and truly believed in my zero-tolerance strategy.
Police departments, like any other workplace, have a supervisory hierarchy that’s guided by fate. By the luck of the draw, you can be assigned to a sergeant who is competent or not, self-serving or nurturing, principled or unscrupulous. I was fortunate back then—my sergeant was not only highly respected but also respectful of others. I had seen him in action many times and truly admired his steely courage and his quiet humor. I looked to him for guidance during the bloom of my young police career, and he did little to disappoint me.
But there was one conversation above all others that 25 years later reverberates through my memories. We were having breakfast one chilly autumn morning, looking out the greasy windows of an all-night diner as dawn broke. The discussion was fairly one-sided, with me recounting the long night’s events, including a domestic dispute with a particularly argumentative husband whom I had gleefully handcuffed and jailed. When I was done bragging about my exploits, Tom said nothing for a moment. He simply looked at me over the coffee mug he held, and I knew by his silence he was thinking. He placed the mug into the saucer and said, “Randy, you’re a good cop. You have all of the instincts necessary to sniff out bad guys, an excellent working knowledge of the law and admirable dedication.”
I basked in the remarks, but felt uneasy about what might come next.
“But let me ask you one question.”
“Uh oh,” I thought.
“Can you tell me the difference between a good cop and a great cop?”
I must have stammered something, but I can’t remember what. But I do remember his eyes crinkling with amusement at my response, and then with the earnest expression I came to know well in the years to come, he said, “The difference between a good cop and a great cop is compassion.”
Some moments in your life hold special significance. Moments that create clarity in thought and perspective. I revisit that conversation often. It has come to define my view of not only my profession, but how I conduct my life. Most important, however, it’s the message I pass on to many a young and eager cop in whose future I’m proud to have played a role. I consider myself fortunate to have received that rich legacy, and I believe the concept of Legacy Based Leadership can truly change the future of not only law enforcement, but all of our business and personal relationships.
How Do You Get There?
Simple. A leader must remainconsciously aware that every interaction that takes place between them and someone within their sphere of influence will affect the personal and/or professional life of that person or group. It falls upon a leader to take the responsibility to ensure their actions are competent, ethical and compassionate if they want to create an environment within which their followers will derive the greatest benefit and knowledge.
So, how do you accomplish this lofty goal?
• Know Yourself. Perform a personal inventory. What are your strongest leadership areas? Which aspects of your personal style would you like to change? Do you practice self growth? Do you need to expand your knowledge base? How effective do you believe yourself to be?
• Accept Your Idealism. Remember why you chose your profession. You play a significant role in the lives of countless people. It’s OK to take pride in that and discuss why the law enforcement role is so important with others.
• Remember the Great Leaders. Who played an important role in guiding your life? What personal traits did they possess that you admired? How can you adapt those aspects to your own life? Our greatest learning tool is our past experiences.
• Share Yourself. You have gained a great deal of wisdom during your lifetime and will continue to grow as a leader and a person. But if you lock that knowledge and experience away, you won’t be able to leave your personal legacy. If you accept that you can improve the lives of others, you will grow more confident in your leadership role and willing to guide those within your sphere of influence.
I eventually left that police department for several reasons, the most significant of which was that I felt the leadership of the agency utilized fear, intimidation and power as their leadership techniques. This led to poor morale among the employees that manifested itself as fragmented loyalties, promotions based on nepotism and personnel turnover.
This continued for several more years after I left until the chief retired, and then a metamorphosis took place. The new chief brought with him an entirely different philosophy of leadership. He created an environment of unity by listening to the needs of his officers. He changed how shift schedules were developed, promotions and assignments were based, and discipline was meted out.
Probably the most significant change was that the employees came to believe that their leadership cared about not only the law enforcement mission, it cared about them as well. Recruitment and retention improved, officers distinguished themselves and were recognized for their achievements, and a culture of pride took root.
Who was the man who ushered in this amazing change? You guessed it, the same man whose words and guidance touched me those many years ago. His philosophy would trickle down through the men and women of the organization and affect a new generation of young cops.
Policing is without a doubt a unique career that challenges us on every level. The physical challenges run from the demanding toll of shift work to the all-too-real possibility of fighting for your life in a dirty alley, but the emotional traumas can take an even heavier toll than the physical risks. Constant exposure to violence, cruelty and ignorance pours an enormous burden into the souls of our nation’s law officers, and if you add one more insidious aspect to this potent brew, you have the recipe for career and personal disaster. I’m talking about something that tragically remains the least emphasized by police leadership and yet the one over which we have the greatest control: professional bitterness.
Some call it burn-out, others use less flattering labels, but all who have spent any time in law enforcement recognize those whose who suffer its symptoms: Alcoholism, sleep deprivation, depression, sick leave or workers comp abuse, excessive citizen complaints and even suicide are all pieces of the mosaic of bitterness. And yet even though every cop in every agency can put a name and a face to the term, very few agencies devote any resources to combat its spread or even face the seriousness of its fallout. Rarely does a single situation in a career infect an officer with bitterness, but only true leadership can identify the beginning symptoms and effectively deal with them.
One Sergeant’s Legacy
During the 14 years I spent as a sergeant, I worked with hundreds of police supervisors and made it my business to observe the differing styles of leadership and management in hopes of absorbing aspects that prove successful, and perhaps identifying traits that do not. The sergeant plays what may be the most crucial role in the lives and careers of the officers under their command.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, fate or providence all too often places an officer who is in the formative stage of career evolution within the supervisory orbit of an unqualified, uncaring or incompetent sergeant. This can have far-reaching effects that seep into the future of a law enforcement organization.
Example: I worked alongside several other squads on the same shift, and one evening during a coffee-fueled management meeting with our lieutenant, one of the sergeants bitterly complained about the “attitudes of these young cops on my squad.” The lieutenant remarked that he had overheard one of the members of that squad enthusiastically voicing his dislike of the sergeant in a bar just days before. I thought that information would provoke some anger or embarrassment, but much to my surprise, the sergeant was actually pleased—he sat back with a broad grin and said, “Well, there you go LT, now you know I’m doing my job, don’t you? The more those little bastards hate me, the more work I’m getting out of them.” I almost spilled my coffee listening to him bragging about sowing the seeds of hatred in his officers and expressing his belief that it made him an effective leader. In reality, the legacy he left each of the officers who fell beneath his command was one of hate, distrust and failure.
Law enforcement leadership begins at the field-training officer level and continues to the head of the organization. As a leader, you have a responsibility to create an environment in which the needs of the organization and the needs of the employees meld together to accomplish the mission. The mission is not just getting the job done, but having a workforce that wants to get it done right.
Legacy Based Leadership is simple. You must understand that each interaction with another human being is like a microcosm of life itself. It has a beginning, a life span and an end. Knowing that you control what people think about you when you walk away is at the core of controlling your legacy.
Leadership is both an honor and a privilege. You owe it to those who follow you to leave a legacy of justice, unity and compassion.