Years ago, I attended a leadership training class where the instructor conducted an interesting exercise. He showed us a Styrofoam cup and told us we had to quickly come up with ten things we could do with it: writing on it, breaking it up—basically any application we could think of.
I immediately thought of seven ideas but, as the clock ran out, struggled to come up with ideas for the final three. I don’t remember if I made it to 10 but what followed afterward left a lasting impression. The instructor tore off big sheets of paper from an easel and spread them out for us to write down our answers. “I never thought of that”, was the most common response when seeing a new idea written down by fellow officer. The goal of the instructor was really simple: he was basically trying to teach us that those we work with us have so much to offer if we only listen. It was an outstanding lesson that I will never forget—and one every leader should heed.
Police managers and leaders have a wealth of knowledge and ideas available to them, if they are only willing to ferret them out. Too often they are not interested in doing so, may think they have all the answers they need or can figure it out on their own. Hubris can do that to many who reach advanced levels of leadership but it’s a shame because they are only limiting the success of their agency and stifling productivity and the self-actualization of their personnel. It’s like sitting on a treasure but being unwilling to dig for it.
When a department encourages and channels its human resources, it will discover new and better ways to serve its customers. For example, Richmond Heights Police Sergeant Todd Leisure, a former Marine and scout master, came up with a unique idea for youth outreach by developing a program called Cop Scouts. A blend of cub/girl scouts and police explorers program, it’s geared for for eight to 12-years-old and teaches them life skills while providing opportunities for friendship and fun. It is successful because Sgt. Leisure was given the autonomy and creative license to develop and run the program.
We can’t ask officers to come up with ideas but then micro-manage or take control of the process thereby stifling their energy. Instead, we must be willing to let go of the reins (within reason, of course) to let them take control.
There are many ways to learn and discover new ideas from the officers you work alongside or who work under your direction. It is a simple concept: ask and listen. This can be obtained through suggestion boxes, casual conversation, formal staff meetings or via department surveys.
For officers who want to develop promising ideas, we need to give them the space and opportunity to do so. They need a certain degree of autonomy and creative license to allow for more of their ingenuity to be discovered and utilized. Of course, oversight is still needed and sometimes your input and expertise can be helpful to move a project along, but it’s important to allow their vision to take shape. It’s also critical to let them know up front not to sweat it if an idea that sounded good doesn’t work out. Great inventors certainly had to go back to the drawing board too. Risk-taking will always involve certain levels of success and failure, and we must be willing to keep trying until we succeed.
With all the challenges that police officers face today, it is vital that their leaders recognize that they have at their disposal some smart and committed public servants who, if given the chance, could improve upon our police service model in ways, both big and small. Take advantage of your talent and give it the resources it needs. You and your agency will be better for it.
Tom Wetzel is the chief of police in Richmond Heights, Ohio, a Northeast Ohio suburban police lieutenant and former SWAT commander. He is also a certified law enforcement executive, adjunct professor in community policing and internationally published author on police topics.
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