Police leadership: Becoming a ‘cop whisperer’

As a leader, if you are balanced, calm, focused, consistent, confident, and humble, it’s likely that those who work for you (or with you) will be the same

I am constantly reading. Thanks to my bibliophile husband and his Amazon account, my nightstand is stacked with a dozen or so texts at any given time and my I-Pod is filled with a variety of audiobooks. In the last few weeks I’ve been listening to Robert Sutton’s “Good Boss, Bad Boss” — the follow up to his outstanding bestseller “The No Asshole Rule.” And because we have a new rescue pup in the Smith household, I’m re-reading The Dog Whisperer’s first book, “Cesar’s Way” by Cesar Milan. I usually listen to books while I workout or during long flights, and generally I read at night before I go to bed.

I woke up the other morning as I often do, with 15 article ideas swirling around in my caffeine-starved brain. After consuming half a pot of freshly brewed coffee, the nagging concept in the back of my brain’s right side for weeks finally jumped to the forefront. “Leadership!”

I sat down at the computer and typed out random words from each author’s primary concepts. Strength, compassion, skill, pride, demeanor, humanity, self-reflection. From two very different perspectives, these two experts were saying essentially the same thing. “It’s all about your ability to lead, stupid.” I grabbed our hardcover version of Sutton’s book and a yellow highlighter, and I spent the next week comparing and contrasting the two books side by side.

This became a bit of an emotional journey for me. I forced myself to dredge up significant mistakes I’d made both as a sergeant and as a dog owner. Damn. Self-reflection sucks. I discovered that errors I’d made both with people and with dogs had surprising similarities. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a terrible boss or a bad pet owner, but I could have done a whole lot better; we all can. So stay with me, fellow crimefighters, this isn’t my usual PoliceOne article, but let me show you what we can all learn from “The Dog Whisperer” and “The No Asshole Guy” that can help us do our jobs better.

What is a Boss?
Dr. Sutton likes to use the word “boss” rather than supervisor, manager, or leader because of its simplicity; a boss is an authority figure who has direct and frequent contact with subordinates and is responsible for personally directing and evaluating their work. Cesar Milan calls this being a “pack leader.” Whether you’re a SWAT team sniper or one of four border collies in charge of a flock of easily distracted sheep, you are looking for real leadership, not someone with a title.

Think about the best boss you ever worked for. What made them a great boss? Chances are, they set high standards for the team without being a bully. They were probably slow to anger, and even-handed when doling out discipline, workload or perks. You likely knew what was expected of you and you enjoyed coming to work. Bosses with these traits have what Milan calls a “calm-assertive” personality.

The Importance of Energy
Here’s where I continue to struggle as a boss and as a “pack leader.” My “energy;” my moods, my demeanor, my focus, tend to fluctuate greatly. (trust me, when my kids, my husband, and my co-workers read this, they’ll be nodding their heads so hard in agreement they’re likely to hurt themselves). I am constantly attempting to achieve what Milan calls “balance.” It’s simple stuff really; using breathing exercises, thinking before I open my mouth, and having the proper perspective all help.

As a leader, if you are balanced, calm, focused, consistent, confident, and humble, it’s likely that those who work for you (or with you) will be the same. Dr. Sutton believes that bosses should not only be judged by what they get done but how their people feel about it along the way. “The best bosses balance performance and humanity,” Sutton states. Good bosses should be “getting things done in way that enhance rather than destroy dignity and pride.”

And don’t assume that you are a balanced and humane boss; ask your people what they think, and take their feedback seriously. In police work, it’s not just about serving the community or serving your own management, it’s about serving those who follow you. .

Always Being Watched
Whether you like it or not, you’re a role model when you’re a boss. In fact, your people probably know a whole lot more about you and your habits than you do about them. They are watching your approach on a traffic stop, how you conduct a search, what you say to people, how you talk to and about your own boss, even what you eat and how you conduct your personal life.

How you act is usually much more important than what you say, especially when dealing with cops, who tend to be experts at detecting deception. Animals instinctually and intensely watch the “pack leader,” this is part of the continual learning process. As Cesar Milan says, “you can lie to a person, but you can’t lie to dogs.” Generally speaking, you can’t lie to your officers and trainees either. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to make mistakes; but when you do, admit them, ask for forgiveness, then ask for input on how to improve, and move on.

Living in the Now
One of my favorite things about dogs is they don’t hold grudges, they don’t dwell on the past, and they are always looking forward to the next adventure with great enthusiasm. In other words, as Milan says in his book, they “live in the moment.” In the Street Survival Seminar we talk about the importance of living in the now as well as the learning the art of forgiveness. Some attendees misinterpret this as “forgive and forget.”

In “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” Dr. Sutton discusses the outstanding concept of “forgive and remember.”

In police work, one of best ways we can learn is to examine our own screw ups, as well as the mistakes and misdeeds of others, but we must be careful not to use a good employee’s mistake to humiliate or discredit them. We also must learn to forgive ourselves, make any necessary improvements in how we lead, and then move on. In other words, get rid of the “gotcha” mentality in your organization, even if you have to do it one day, one employee, one example at a time. Learn to live in the now!

Leadership lessons can come to us from unexpected sources, and good leaders are always learning. My latest lessons came to me from a Mexican-American dog handler, a Stanford University professor, and a rescue dog looking for someone to be his pack leader. Where will your next lesson come from?

About the Author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety’s School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy’s website at www.femaleforces.com.

Contact Betsy Smith and Follow Betsy on Twitter


Article originally posted on PoliceOne, republished with permission from Dave Smith & Associates

Police leadership: Becoming a ‘cop whisperer’