Several years ago, I witnessed an unnecessary and truly embarrassing example of failed leadership. A new chief decided that our department needed leadership training. He hired a nationally recognized organization to provide forty-hours of training for everyone with the rank of captain and above. While I had no idea the intent behind the training, I welcomed the opportunity and hoped for the best.
Maybe I was also a bit too eager because I remember showing up early that morning. OK, maybe it was really early since nobody else was there except for the sergeant who was scurrying about tending to last-minute details after spending weeks coordinating this $20,000 training event. Soon others started showing up. After some bad jokes and hallway banter, I took a seat and was getting into the right mindset. The training sergeant hurried in at the last moment and sat down in one of the empty seats right in front of me.
That’s when everything went terribly wrong…
A chief immediately went over to the sergeant and demanded to know why he was sitting there—and what he was still doing in the training room. The sergeant explained that his commander gave him permission to attend because he demonstrated strong leadership in coordinating practically every detail for the training session (along with basically moving mountains for it make it all happen). Nobody could deny the ton of work the sergeant accomplished with his team in a heroically short amount of time. However, the chief dismissed his explanation—and the sergeant himself. The chief ordered the sergeant to leave while making it abundantly clear that only captains and above were allowed.
It was bad enough watching him leave the room without being able to take part in the leadership training he worked so hard to make happen. But then I noticed the situation seemed even worse. The manager who gave the sergeant permission to attend was also sitting in the room—and could have easily said something about the arrangement (while showing some courage as a leader). However, like all the other “leaders” in the room, he didn’t say a word as the sergeant quietly walked out taking his embarrassment with him.
As for myself, I was dumbstruck. All of this happened right in front of me. It was a failure of leadership in so many ways—on so many levels—I could barely make sense of it all in the moment. But I was already promising myself that I would do everything I could to make sure that people who want to learn and lead would get the experience and the training they need to do so.
Putting failure on display
This was supposed to be a week-long seminar about leadership. However, this failure of leadership ironically set the tone for the week (that’s a bit of an understatement actually). Of course, there were some hushed comments here and there about how the chief could have been more subtle or offered a compromise or just handled the situation differently. But that’s hardly the problem. The problem was that the chief was acting like far too many “leaders” in our profession today. Even worse, the rest of the command seemed to agree with the chief’s decision. That’s because they failed to question one of the greatest falsehoods in police leadership: they believe that rank correlates to leadership.
In practice, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
Stripes, stars, and look-at-me walls…
If you look around, you’ll find plenty examples of officers, rookies, even cadets demonstrating initiative and solid leadership skills. This shouldn’t seem surprising, especially since you’ll also find plenty of examples of high-ranking “leaders” (with enough brass on their uniform to make an antique shop owner jealous) demonstrating the worst failures of leadership, if not plain old common sense.
So let me dispel one of the most stubborn myths about leadership in the law enforcement profession: rank does not automatically correlate to leadership ability. Just because someone has a stripe or a star on their uniform doesn’t mean they know anything about being a successful leader.
Dividing leaders & followers?
While I’m at it, let me address another problem that this incident made unfortunately clear: separating leaders from followers is about the most idiotic thing you can do to improve leadership. The success of a leader depends upon the the success of their followers. Even some of the most egotistical leaders in law enforcement realize this at some point. Yet many seem to think that leadership has more to do with how many leadership seminars they’ve attended or how many fancy training certificates they have on their look-at-me walls.
In this incident, a chief embarrassed a sergeant for trying to learn and become a better leader (while ignoring all of his hard work and effort). However, there’s a bit more to this story…
The separation of leaders from followers—based on confused ideas about rank—proved to be prophetic. Despite his embarrassment that day, the sergeant continued to seek out training and educate himself. A few years later, he earned a doctorate. He also gained a lot of respect for his achievements and notable accomplishments as a leader and entrepreneur—after he left the department.
Key Principle: Inspire Others to Lead Courageously
This example proves that if you’re not inspiring others to lead, you’re probably inspiring them to leave instead…