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The Truth About Success and Leadership

Society, and law enforcement in particular, has some pretty perverted concepts about success and leadership. There are many myths – and truths – about success and leadership.

Some Myths:

  • You are either a “follower” or a “leader” – you can’t be both and be successful.

  • You have to be famous, or at least really important, to be a successful leader.

  • Success is measured by how much money you make.

  • When people want to be just like you, you know you are successful.

  • Only smart people can be successful.

  • To be successful or a leader you have to be ruthless.

  • Success is a destination (my favorite myth)

  • People are born to be leaders and to be successful.

  • Success can only be achieved by a select few.

  • You have to have rank or seniority to be a real leader – otherwise you are a follower.

  • You have to receive an award (commendation, department citation, or Medal of Valor) to be a real leader and to be considered successful as a cop.

  • If you have a college degree, you think you are smarter than everyone else and will probably get promoted to a leadership position, even though you have never proven yourself in the trenches – in other words, you are not a real cop.

  • Real cops don’t get, or want, to be promoted – because “leaders” forget where they come from.

  • Promoting up the ranks proves you are successful and a leader. (Success is a destination).

When applied to law enforcement, these general myths have some very specific twists. These twists are complicated even further by the culture found within many police agencies – that culture: it’s Us versus Them.

I want to share one Truth about success and leadership in law enforcement. Just because something is perceived as a “fact” doesn’t make it a truth. So let’s separate some facts from the truth.

It is a fact there is such a thing as positional leadership. This is particularly true in military and quasi-military organizations. Rank does have responsibilities associated with leadership – leaders make and enforce rules, leaders in these organizations do give orders that must be followed, leadership positions are designated by rank insignias.

But the truth is folks without rank can be influential leaders within their agencies and communities. Leaders influence people to adopt and follow the leader’s vision. How does this happen, especially if a person does not have a leadership “position”?

My friend and mentor, John Maxwell, has a saying – everyone communicates, few connect. He even wrote a bestselling book by the same name. This is ever so true in law enforcement. We even have a designated “Communications Center”! Cops talk on the radio and tell citizens what to do or not do. Supervisors give directions and orders over the radio and at roll calls. Dispatchers dispatch us over the radio – and we go where they tell us. We have MOP’s and SOP’s, Executive Orders and General Orders. We are great at communicating. Rarely do we connect. So, what’s the big deal about connecting?

Connecting with people is one of the most important keys to success and leadership – that’s a truth. I have always said, “Change the way you think and you will change the way you act.” Well, this is one of those “change the way you think” moments. You must connect, not just communicate with people. Let me share a personal story that I think might help you understand what I mean. It involves communicating and connecting. Several officers were dispatched to a home on a family trouble call. An adult son was holed up in his room, ranting and raving about God and how messed up his life was. He was sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth against the bedroom wall. He was hitting the wall so hard that the plaster was falling off – in the room on the other side of his!

The two officers were talking to the man with absolutely no success. He just kept rocking and banging the wall, all the while muttering, “Oh God, oh God”. The officers naturally called their Sergeant to respond to the scene. The Sarge, a black belt in Judo, arrived several minutes later. He too tried to talk the man, without success. They just wanted to take him to a hospital to talk with a mental health specialist, but the man completely ignored them. Rocking and banging away. The Sergeant had been my partner before he was promoted and decided to have me come to the house. I arrived to see two cruisers and an ambulance staged out front. As I entered the house, distraught family members are gathered in the living room. I see plaster all over the living room floor and clearly hear banging against the wall and someone moaning “Oh God, oh God.” This is not going to be good.

The Sergeant and two officers were standing outside the bedroom door, arms crossed and looking rather pissed. I asked the Sarge, what’s up. He gives me the run down and then tells me this: I was called to the scene because I was the smallest guy on duty. The bedroom is really small and we were going to bum rush this guy, handcuff him and take him to the hospital in the ambulance out front. And, I was going in first! Now one thing I have failed to mention – this guy was a dead look alike for Mike Tyson! Whoa, I’m going first?

Thinking quickly, I asked the Sergeant if I can at least talk to the guy first. “Sure, good luck with that.” Remembering everyone communicates, few connect I needed to change the way everyone was thinking if I was going to get them to change the way they were acting. Mini-me Tyson needed to change his thinking and acting or he was going out of here on a stretcher – and I was probably going to the ER with a few injuries myself. The Sergeant and officers need to change the way they were thinking and acting or there was going to be a lot of use of force paper work and a whole lot of upset family members, because we thumped their relative who just needed some help. I needed to connect with this guy, not just talk at him.

My initial few moments were useless – guy wouldn’t even look at me even though I had squatted down to be on eye level with him. He just kept rocking and banging, moaning over and over, “Oh God, oh God.” That’s when it hit me, is this guy a religious sort of guy? I stepped out and asked his mother the question. She told me he used to be, that his father was a preacher who had died several months ago and her son just stopped going to church. He was very close to his father and he had a hard time dealing with his father’s death. Boom – I had my opportunity to connect!

Mini-me Tyson’s vision, priority was his father, a man of faith. He had lost one of the most important things in his life. He was disconnected from the world around him. I had to reconnect him to that world. I knew I had to ask him one and only one question. I had to communicate and connect with him or the fight was going to be on.

Now I was not a deeply religious guy – I was born and raised and was a practicing Catholic. Sadly, quoting Scripture was not my strong suit. But I did know one verse by heart. So, I squatted down to eye level, making sure I was way more than an arm’s length distance from mini-me Tyson. I asked him one question – who do you pray with? Instantly, he stopped rocking and banging, turned his head and looked me right in the eyes and said, “No one.”

I reached into my very limited memory bank of Bible verses and looked him in the eye and said as calmly as I could – Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there with them. I then asked my second question. Do you want me to pray with you? He said, yes. Connected!

I told him I would pray with him if he would promise me to get up, get dressed and walk out of here like a man – no handcuffs, just him and me, and I would drive him to the hospital to talk with some people. Will you do that? Yes, he said. He got up, got dressed and I walked him out to my cruiser – no handcuffs. Once we were in the car, I kept my word, I turned to him and said, “Let’s pray”. And for the next few minutes we prayed together – nothing fancy, we both just asked God to help him and watch over him.

Change the way you think and you will change the way you act. It is totally your choice. One choice leads to the path of success and leadership. The other leads to failure or at least, you keep the status quo in your life and career. I could have gone along with the prevailing thinking of most cops – if they don’t do what you tell them, cuff and stuff them, it’s their choice. I chose to think differently – not only to change the way I acted, but to change how others acted. This was a conscious and intentional choice on my part.

Mini-me Tyson probably thought all cops were the same. He was black, I was white and the fight was going to be on. He changed the way he thought when I connected with him – thus he changed the way he acted. I know the officers changed the way they thought – they, and the Sergeant, all talked to me later about what I did and why I did it. They had never thought of solving this particular situation with anything other than force. They will think differently next time – I had connected with them about my vision, my priority of protecting and serving. I hoped it would lead them to adopt this same vision and priority in their lives and careers.

If you truly believe your calling is to protect and serve - to be a Warrior Servant – you need to make some choices in life. I encourage you to reflect on how you are thinking, your attitudes and beliefs. You are in control of each of these – choose wisely and intentionally, they determine your actions. Be successful, be a leader and always, stay safe out there.

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