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Know your people: The key to effective leadership in public safety

An important benefit to coaching is the individualized approach to leadership based on the strengths and weaknesses of the subordinate

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“Leaders must decipher the “algorithms” of independent team members and find ways to empower them to perform effectively together,” Scism writes.

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This article is part of a series, Finding the Leader in You, which addresses key concepts in public safety leadership.

Last month, we discussed the importance of planning and decision making. It should come as no surprise that the effective use of organizational goals and objectives are a big part of the process. However, nothing happens without a collective group of people working together as a team under a shared vision. Great leaders have the ability to leverage the strengths of others while providing the right amount of support to make their teams successful. Seems straightforward, right? But what’s the secret to success as a leader? How do we facilitate a productive team environment while living up to the expectations of management and completing the mission?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer because humans are complex, social beings that cannot be lumped together and tethered to blanket expectations. Each of us is unique. Leaders must decipher the “algorithms” of independent team members and find ways to empower them to perform effectively together. Simply put, effective leadership in public safety relies on knowing our people.

Defining leadership

Leadership is often defined as the ability to influence and energize people working together in a common effort that contributes to the mission of the organization. But it involves so much more. If we agree that people are the most valuable resource in our workplace, then we must understand, analyze, and to some degree, predict the actions of our people. Our actions are not controlled nor dispersed by the organization. They come from within each of us.

In that spirit, I think Kevin Kruse’s definition better fits today’s workforce. According to Kruse, “leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, toward the achievement of a goal.” Kruse’s definition recognizes the social nature of humans – the buy-in element we all desire. It also includes some type of goal, which is paramount. You recall from last month that we defined goals as the where we are going component, which helps us achieve results both personally and organizationally.

Effective leadership and positive self-regard

Being an effective leader in public safety takes both courage and confidence. When I lecture, I typically ask the audience whether they believe effective leaders are born or made. Interestingly, the attendees make compelling arguments on both sides of the spectrum and there really is no right or wrong answer. The truth is that anyone can be a leader. It takes mental focus, it takes commitment, and it takes action – period. As we’ve previously discussed, there are countless examples of informal leaders doing extraordinary things every day in public safety. This doesn’t require an official status or a college degree. It simply relies on a person’s ability to take initiative while maintaining the proper attitude.

When we hold high expectations for ourselves and maintain confidence in our ability to do the job, we can accomplish great things. Positive self-regard seems to exert its force by creating a sense of these same characteristics in others. Simply put, your attitude and your efforts beyond the status quo can be contagious. Consider how your attitude impacts those around you.

It’s also equally important to constantly monitor our:

  • Ability to accept our employees as they are and to understand them on a personal level
  • Capacity to approach relationships and problems in terms of the present rather than the past
  • Ability to treat all employees in a fair and impartial manner while demonstrating respect for their opinions
  • Ability to trust others, even when the stakes are high
  • Ability to complete assigned tasks without constant approval or recognition since leadership is often thankless

Charles Swindoll offers what I think is one of the best pieces of advice when it comes to keeping our attitudes in check: “Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”

Humans are the perfect mess

Although the phrase “knowing your people” can come off as cliché, the truth is that to some degree, supervision requires us to touch base with some advanced human characteristics. Generational considerations, values assessments and culture all play an important role in how we develop and integrate into the workplace. Consider the employee born in 1967 and how they compare to another employee born in 1999. What were each of them exposed to and what life lessons do they bring to the table? What about the employee who grew up in a rural environment versus the employee who grew up within a metro region? Are there qualities unique to each that create the potential for conflict in the workplace? Or do those differences make for a team of cohorts capable of doing just about anything? In all cases, the answer is clearly, yes.

Directing versus coaching

When I was a young supervisor, there was a lot of emphasis placed on directing employees to accomplish the mission. Directing indicates a course of action to be followed by subordinates and is said to keep action moving toward planned objectives. Although directing can be a vital link between preparation and operation, it’s commonly formal in nature and implies the leader’s will over the staff. This isn’t uncommon in a quasi-military environment where structure and rules play a major role in how work gets done.

But when we focus on a team-oriented structure where all personnel have ownership in accomplishing goals and objectives, that formality and structure can be a barrier. This is especially true with the newest generation of employees in the workforce. These people already possess a somewhat jaded view of the world around them and often seek empowerment and purpose. They aren’t happy simply doing the work because it needs done. They need to understand the importance of the work and how it satisfies the why inherent in all of us.

In that regard, it’s incumbent upon leaders to coach and mentor subordinates. We can look no further than organized sports to see how effective coaching in a team environment works. Each member of the team and coaching staff have equal skin in the game, and although the coach sets the tone and sometimes the direction, it’s the collective efforts of the team that lead to a championship win. Sometimes that win is based on split-second decisions made in one simple moment of execution on the field.


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Another important benefit to coaching is the individualized approach to leadership based on the strengths and weaknesses of the subordinate. Whereas directing implies equal levels of knowledge, skills, and abilities, coaching recognizes differences based on human factors and allows the leader to customize his/her approach to getting results. Many leaders gravitate toward directing simply because it’s easy. Send an email, address a group and pass along general expectations, then move on to another task—done. Coaching requires an investment in both you and the employee’s career. It takes time and it takes effort.

Make the effort to care

Being a leader simply means caring about others. Spend time with your subordinates and expend effort to understand their individual wants and needs. Work together as a team and find new and exciting ways to empower employees while enlisting their creative problem-solving approaches along the way. Remember, anything worthwhile takes effort.

Captain Rex M. Scism (Ret) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He also had a successful military career, retiring from the Missouri Army National Guard after 20 years of service. Mr. Scism served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, and is a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and currently serves as a content developer for Lexipol.