Believing in the messenger

Morley Lymburner
February 24, 2011
By Morley Lymburner
“I need to know who is driving scout car 4110,” the district superintendent told me. I asked why. “Because I constantly hear officers asking for his advice on the radio – even patrol sergeants,” he scowled. “Obviously I have been promoting the wrong people,” he mumbled in a lower voice. Only call signs are used on the radio, the superintendent pointed out, but obviously everyone knows him. “That man is a born leader and I want to know who he is.”

“I need to know who is driving scout car 4110,” the district superintendent told me. I asked why. “Because I constantly hear officers asking for his advice on the radio – even patrol sergeants,” he scowled. “Obviously I have been promoting the wrong people,” he mumbled in a lower voice.

Only call signs are used on the radio, the superintendent pointed out, but obviously everyone knows him. “That man is a born leader and I want to know who he is.”

I contacted communications, got his name and called him into my training office. He was an officer with about 10 years on the job. The boss is impressed with how everyone asks his advice, I told him, adding that this likely means his glide path to promotion is probably already in the works.

“What if I don’t want to be promoted?” he replied. “I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”

A year passed and routine orders arrived on my desk showing the officer was being promoted. I called the newly minted sergeant at his new station to congratulate him and was greeted with a less than enthusiastic voice.

“You know what I am doing now” he stated rather than asked. “I am booking prisoners in and out on night shift. The most challenging part of my shift is trying to determine the sex of some of the drunks so I know which lock-up to put them in... and man, some nights that is a tough, dirty and mean job.”

He also had to settle disputes between 15 officers under his command, write evaluations on them and review, file and pass along a mountain of other paperwork. “This is not why I joined the police force,” he said with a deep sigh.

The newly promoted “leader” of his platoon had clearly discovered the difference between leadership as a position and leadership as an activity.

Police leaders are developed and not born, however the difference between an effective and not so effective leader could very well depend when they acquired this talent. The good news is that the filtering and application process in policing encourages good leadership abilities. The bad news is that poor managers can quickly inhibit or even destroy good leadership abilities.

In the military leadership is only encouraged through the promotional rank level. This has been inadvertently passed along to police. The only way to be recognized is by moving to a higher rank.

Front line police officers must have leadership in their blood. They are required to take control and command of situations involving the public. Whether a search for a lost child or as witnesses to an event, they must command enough respect to get the public to respond and co-operate.

This is best described by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, recognized experts and leadership trainers. They once hypothesized that the first law of leadership is “if we don’t believe in the messenger, we won’t believe the message.” It is imperative for police to attain enough credibility with the public so those who call upon them are ready to believe the message.

The Police Leadership Forum (PLF) was created in 1996 for the express purpose of encouraging and nurturing the qualities of leadership within policing. Its core value was celebrating leadership as an activity, not a position. The organization produced an award in 1999 recognizing the police leader of the year, which it presented to six individuals to recognize their core leadership abilities. On or about 1997 the organization faded out of existence.

Blue Line Magazine had been a major sponsor of the PLF almost since its inception. I recognized the Forum’s basic tenets were similar to our magazine’s approach and purpose. With the blessings of those last involved with the Forum, Blue Line has now taken over the selection and presentation of this prestigious award.

The word “leadership” unfortunately has many interpretations and the English language has limitations regarding precise meaning and intent of some words. The “activity” of leadership we are attempting to encourage is a personal trait as opposed to a rank, position or job.

Currently we are looking for nominees for the 2010 Police Leader of the Year. The initial award will be open to active Canadian police officers, below the rank of senior officer, who have demonstrated exemplary leadership and commitment to service through deeds resulting in a measurable benefit to their peers, service and community.

If you have a good idea for a recipient but are not sure if they fit all the criteria, don’t let that stop you. We will have up to six judges, well respected for their policing background, who can sort it all out. To find out more and obtain an application form visit www.blueline. ca/leadership.

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