Command Issue March 2019

3 keys to leadership

By Chief Steven J. Vaccaro

Have you, as a current or prospective police chief, ever been asked how you manage your staff? Have you ever evaluated your own management or leadership style?

Six years ago, when I began interviewing for a chief of police position, each interview panel asked a very similar question regarding how I “managed” my people. In each case, I would ask in what context they were referring. The reply was analogous for each panel, and the clarifying question was simple: “What is your management style?”

My reply revolved around managing situations, not people. In clarifying my response, I described some of the situations that we as police chiefs often, or plausibly, could encounter. I explained that we regularly shift our management styles in order to manage situations, including everything from what we believe to be minor in nature in our individual organizational schemes, to situations that may have a long-lasting impact on our communities. The culmination of my response revolved around leading the organization through involvement and by example, and not by locking myself in to a certain management style or how my employees should be managed. Now, six years later, I have been asked about my perspective on leadership. With all of the great leaders that surround me in the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, what I have to offer is what I have learned from other leaders and from my own mentors. I often reflect on selected readings and the leadership principles that have I have been able use effectively.

Although not all inclusive, three keys to successful public safety leadership, in my opinion, revolve around:

  1. Visibility and engagement,
  2. Employee development and empowerment, and
  3. Putting round pegs into round holes.

Visibility and engagement
First, involvement or “visibility” within the organization will have a marked influence in how you are perceived by others. In the 1960s, management guru Peter Drucker coined “Management by Walking Around,” or MBWA. Then, the concept was famously practiced by the leaders of Hewlett Packard and popularized by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman in their best-seller, In Search of Excellence (1982).
The concept is not to simply be visible or walk through your facility for no other reason than to be seen. I have witnessed many “bosses” walk the hallways with no objective, no focus and certainly no engagement. The crux of MBWA is to communicate with and engage your staff. Engagement should ultimately include every employee.

Ask questions that will spur thought and solicit productive input. Openly accept inquiries and feedback. Challenge your employees in order to make them better service providers, but also to make them an integral part of your organization. Invite them to be part of a discussion or decision. The ability for you to be available and open to your staff does a great deal to dispel the myth that the chief makes independent and uninformed decisions from “the corner office.” Do you want to take MBWA to the next level? Show your staff that you are a part of their team. Handle a walk-in complaint (but nothing too complicated – please). Show up on a crash and ask how you can help. Ask your staff questions involving their daily interactions. Show each employee that you are willing to do what you ask them to do by your actions – not by words alone. In the end, leadership is not telling people what to do.

Employee development and empowerment
Second, being paramilitary in nature, we quite often direct our employees when they ask how they should address a specific situation. In some cases, we provide clear direction without further inquiry by us or explanation from them. Although difficult to believe, the majority in our profession are Type-A personalities. We like to shine; we like to thrive. We have a tendency to show others that we have the answers – and quickly. However, as leaders we are sometimes too eager to provide “the right way” for our employees rather than provoking thought and buy-in from them. This does nothing for employee development. This does not foster empowerment and buy-in. If our employees rely on us to provide answers to the easy questions, what happens when they are required to make a critical decision and you or their supervisor is not immediately available?

Employee development begins with what our parents always told us was not proper etiquette: answering a question with a question. We should be asking our employees what they think they should do; how they believe that they should proceed. Challenge them to come up with their own solutions and even if it is not the way that you would handle a situation (presuming that their proposal is not completely off the tracks), let them try it. There is much to be said about failing and learning from failure versus not trying at all and learning nothing.

“Failure is success in progress,” Albert Einstein said. In the book It’s Your Ship; Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, Captain D. Michael Abrashoff shares his leadership transition and how employee development and empowerment led to the unparalleled success of his ship and crew. Let your employees be involved. Actively listen to their input. When they fall and skin their knees, pick them up and brush them off. Let them make their own decisions. Challenge each to develop solutions and alternate solutions. Involvement in the decision-making process will lead to better employee development, empowerment and a higher degree of confidence in making critical decisions should they be required to do so. Make your ship their ship.

Identify what each one can offer
Finally, I recently had a discussion with a mentor and very close friend of mine regarding generational issues, officers who are less productive/
motivated than we would like them to be and general staff shortcomings. I reverted to my early years as a sergeant, when most of us were judged by numbers on a sheet of paper. Somebody higher on my food chain judged our street officers by numbers each month. How many traffic stops were made? How many tickets were written? How many arrests were initiated? We had informal “challenges” to motivate our officers to see who could do the most (without regard to quality, I might add) and I am fairly confident that as supervisors, we all judged our employees solely by their production at one point in our careers. In my opinion, this resonated a huge failure on my part to lead.

One day I considered evaluating each individual for what I thought each had to offer to the organization. What I found was that each individual had a unique talent and the desire to do something different, but all had the potential to contribute to the organizational success in their own ways. One officer was traffic-oriented and averse to long resident encounters and mountains of paperwork. Another disliked traffic and writing tickets but took great interest in handling the walk-in reports and mundane follow-ups (a people person with the gift of gab and excellent written communication skills). Others desired to shake the trees, develop informants and work longer term street investigations, which could not be done if they were required to end each month with a predetermined number in designated rating categories that were developed by somebody long before I came along. 

This opened my eyes to the fact that every employee had something unique to offer to the success of the organization, and this is not limited to our sworn employees. It is our job as leaders to identify that something in each employee and allow them to use their unique talents to the benefit of our organizations and our residents. It is our job as leaders to use that something to develop each employee in a unique manner. It is our job as leaders to empower each employee and make them a part of our organizational success. It does not matter if your employee is full time, part time, sworn or civilian. Every individual has something unique to offer. It is our job as leaders to stop putting round pegs in square holes.
Do not discard your employee because you don’t feel that he/she has anything to offer. Identify that unique talent and nurture it. The round peg should go in the round hole.

As our law enforcement profession continues to evolve given societal pressures and expectations coupled with the mounting training mandates, we should not lose sight of the dire need to collaborate with those outside of our individual organizations. Do not limit yourself. Take MBWA to a different level by developing partnerships with stakeholders within and outside of your communities in order to develop positive outcomes for your organization. Establish a consistent working relationship with your business and community groups. Illustrate your desire to work as partners through involvement and transparency. Garner support from professional associations (don’t just join – be active) such as the ILACP or your local chiefs’ association. In times of need, whether for informational support or backing for a larger scale issue, these partnerships will prove invaluable.

There is so much that has been published about management and leadership -- about theory and application, and there will be much more beyond our years as law enforcement leaders. We cannot possibly absorb everything that the world has to offer. Nor can we apply it all. We can only use what we believe will be most effective in our own individual organizations and situations. In the end, the continuing success of our organizations will be directly related to our leadership abilities, our willingness to stay involved, and the successful development of the men and women who will one day assume our leadership positions.