Want to be successful? Shoot straight with your subordinates, make your priorities known, and walk the talk whether people are watching or not. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all heard variations of these phrases, but it seems this advice is often preached and seldom practiced. In many facets of our society, we seem to be facing a crisis in leadership. Politicians have failed us, major city police chiefs have been sent to jail or forced to resign and veteran officers are facing the possibility of the death penalty for murder and cover up. Those who are fortunate enough to have jobs are finding they have to do much more with much less. This type of situation is challenging to everyone, but particularly to those who must lead an organization.
Over the course of the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with hundreds of law enforcement leaders in several states because of a training program I’m involved in. The most recent venue was the Tennessee Highway Patrol Academy in Nashville, Tenn.
I went to the facility the night before the event so that everything could be set up properly. As I entered, I couldn’t help but notice that the building had seen much better days. The live-in academy is also the center for in-service training and provides correctional housing for low-risk female inmates. There was a faint mildew smell in the hallways, and loud bullfrogs could be heard croaking in the flooded overgrowth behind the building. In many ways, it seemed like it came right out of the 1960s and was in desperate need of replacement.
When I walked into the training room, I noticed that the dry erase board was so worn it looked like it had been used for baton training. Like many police facilities, the entryway displayed a large memorial to those officers who had died in the line of duty, and the hallways were lined with portraits of past leaders, most of them in faded black and white. I couldn’t help but ponder what the following day would bring.
The next morning, Col. Mike Walker, the head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol was on hand to welcome those in attendance. Walker is a slim man with gray hair and wire-rim glasses. He has both a quick smile and a look of intensity that conveys authority. His well-tailored uniform couldn’t have represented a more professional image, and his fully equipped duty belt and shoes sported a notable shine. At the afternoon training session, Walker again welcomed those in attendance and then surprised me by sitting down and joining the class for the entire session.
Intrigued by a large agency leader who would do more than just meet and greet, I took the opportunity to talk with several members of the THP and watched Walker interact with his personnel. It quickly became apparent that this 33-year veteran had a very firm grasp on what the job entailed and was fully engaged with the troopers. It was also clear that he wasn’t going to moan and groan about situations he couldn’t control. The more I listened, the more I was impressed. Later, I overheard a conversation regarding the agency’s computer-aided dispatch system not properly recording the traffic stops that the colonel had made. Traffic stops? The colonel? At first, I thought I had misunderstood but it’s true, Walker works the road just like other THP troopers.
Just one day before Nashville, I had met an agency supervisor from another state who complained loudly about his department and its members. I kept trying to find a positive for him to focus on, but he was absolutely determined to zero in on the negative and then loudly complain to anyone who would listen. Unlike Walker, the man was anything but trim and his appearance didn’t exactly invoke a feeling of professionalism. The contrast between these two leaders couldn’t have been more striking. I couldn’t help but think that if these two men met, the likely reaction of Walker would be along the lines of: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
What’s your style? What kind of example do you set for those you lead? Do you wear the uniform proudly? Do you focus on moving forward in spite of challenges?
Whether you’re a field training officer or a chief of thousands, you’ve accepted the responsibility to lead. Either embrace it or hand it off to someone who will.
—Dale Stockton, Editor in chief