I was told a few months ago by Paula over at For The Blue, that Madison Police Chief Mike Koval (ret.) was someone that I should meet. I had no reason to doubt what Paula told me but the reality is that Courageous Leaders are like Unicorns. They are very rare but if you ever find one, it is simply magical…

The conversation with Chief Koval is nothing less than a Masterclass in Courageous Leadership and it is simply a mandatory resource that everyone in the profession needs to listen to. Please send it to those that you influence.

I spoke with Chief Koval on our podcast and you can listen to that episode here but it would also help greatly to subscribe to the podcast (Courageous Leadership with Travis Yates) in your preferred app.

If you aren’t the listening type, I have some of Chief Koval’s powerful statements below.

Law Enforcement Leadership Today

I find that today’s sort of mantle of leadership to be sorely lacking in what leadership we see conspicuously out there seem to be very self-serving in terms of me myself and I. I’m sure they would think it is collaborative, but I see that when you take the “go along and get along” approach to the extreme degree, as I’ve seen in so many of these scenarios that it’s very disturbing because at the end of the day, the true selfless guardians, the ones who are putting it all on the line, the rank and file on a daily basis from call to call from moment to moment.  I don’t feel they feel that there is unconditional support from their leadership, nor do I feel like their leaders will respect the rule of law and due process and fundamental fairness for officers who are asked to make ginormous decisions in fractions of seconds. And I think they feel that they’re left twisting out in the wind and they’re going to be tried in absentia by the media with very little support from their chief. A lot of them have sort of lost their focus in terms of if order in order for us to be true guardians to the community, to be true partners to the community. We have to start with getting the best, getting the brightest, giving them the resources, they need, the state-of-the-art training they have, and moreover, understanding that the walk that they walk requires that we have to walk with them, support them, ask them, how is it that I, as a leader, can be doing more for you.

Exposing Cowardly Leaders

We’re just literally, as a chief, they’re just one viral episode away from showing their true colors. And some have stood up to that and have pushed back and have silenced a lot of those critics because they have the chiefs that do that have the facts behind them. And others just literally, they’re quiet. They’re silence is deafening, and the troops are left to look at that and say, oh my goodness. But for the grace of God, I hope I don’t find myself in the same position as my colleague.

Dealing With the Demands of Activists / Politicians

They (Leaders) have to be looking six moves ahead because if you capitulate a piece, go along without objection, you think, okay, on this one small thing, if I can see this item, then we’re going to get back in the fold and I’ll have some traction and I can work with these folks. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you yield, then you’ll find that that just opens the door to yet more and at some point, your critics are going to be breaking down that door.

And then where do you go when you have nothing left?

Being Your Own Media

But when you have the media also working with these false prophets of gloom and doom of what the police are doing to our society, it’s a tougher battle. You have to start looking at what are the means that you can use to push back. And so for me, my means was to be very active with my day to today blog activity. I would use it to use not only as a snapshot of sort of what’s happened in the last 24 to 36 hours in terms of major incidents throughout our city as a point of reference. To show people yes, there is crime, and this is not some sort of a false hatched up kind of theory on my part to make people scared. No, there’s real crime here, but also to use it as a political commentary. Because when you do that and it’s highly read, highly circulated, most downloaded blog on the cities website, then the media has to at least pay some lip service to that.

Fighting The False Narratives

And of course, one of the false narrow kids that I dealt with here in Madison over and over and over again is that you’re over policing marginalized community people of color and more specifically black people. When I did the blog, I said, okay, here’s what we’re going to do is that I’m going to detail all the most significant events and put it on the website, and I’m identifying everybody by gender by age and by race.

Because as you know you know, in Madison, probably every quarter we have 45 to 50,000 calls every quarter. Well, 98 and a half to 99% of those are 9-1-1 dispatch calls. Activity is call driven, meaning some victim witness passerby, a complainant is calling something in to the 9-1-1 center, and then it’s dispatched out to the rank and file police officer and patrol services.

So from that standpoint, we don’t get to pick and choose who our victims are or the suspects are. And so, using legal standards then when someone is arrested or ticketed or charged, I would publish not the names, but I would put the ages and races. And the reason I did it is that as a white guy in Madison, I have to kind of come in through a side portal to make the point.

The first thing they did is they accused me that this was a dog whistle for a racist chief. Oh, yeah. So Madison I think was about 8 or 9% African-American in the population.

And I said, okay, so people are jumping on me because they’re seeing that 40 to 45% of my arrested people here in this blog reflects people of African-American background, but actually I found it interesting. That’s what people are feasting upon because my point of emphasis is that if you’re looking at the victims of these crimes, they’re disproportionately people of color as well.

And I said, why aren’t we giving the victims their just desserts and just rewards and justice as well?

The “Koval” Mantra

My Koval Mantra was engage, relate, listen, explain, repeat, engage, relate, listen, explain, repeat. And I said, I give that mantra to patrol officers, but that should be all of our mantras. That’s how we should be as leaders to our platoons to our to our subgroups.

Relational Leadership

I probably went to more wakes, more funerals, more birthdays. I mean, whenever I could, that was, I think, part of the part about being the leadership being a leader I like the best is that you could show people that there’s a human element that bridges those fans those gaps or perceived gaps that there may be between managers and rank and file.

But at the end of the day, I will always tell my captains at management team. I say, if we ever lose sight of the worker bee, shame on us, because that’s where the impressions are going to be won or lost. That’s where our reputation is going to be advanced. That’s where the true collaboration and authentic relationships are going to be harbored. It’s in the rank-and-file context of every contact.

I went out every day for briefing for the recruits. And then I would teach criminal law and procedure in their class, even though I’d been promoted and then I also teach ethics.

I’m trying to say, you know, if you I’m trying to provide a tone and example, that if you understand that this is coming from me and you’re getting to learn me and we’re engaging and we’re dealing in a sort of Socratic method where I’m asking questions and they’re asking questions and it’s you have that opportunity for engagement without fear of repercussion or puzzle.


That’s the thing is that you know as perhaps any good parent would be, they could expect that I was going to be the first in line to defend them through a process and not allow there to be potshots taken at them.

And that whatever you might hear in the media for the chiefs should do this, the chief should do that. This person should be off. No, that’s not happening. Fundamental fairness, due process, and the rule of law dictates something else. And I’m not going to hasten this process until we have all the facts. But those are the kinds of things that you have to be ever so mindful of is that you’re going to be that tough parent.

And that is the part of the job that also goes with being a leadership. It’s not just winning the popularity polls. It’s also also to know that if i’ve screwed up, this guy’s going to hold me responsible for those actions. And I think that’s an understanding that I have cultivated.

The Power Of One

President John F. Kennedy said that one person can make a difference and everyone should try. So, it doesn’t matter what kind of lofty rank you hold or what your span of control of leadership is. There are things that you can do. Subtle things day to day that can be impactful. And that will resonate. And that will also be like that flat stone that skinned across the pond. It will have a ripple effect. It will have a domino effect.

And don’t short sell yourself on the abilities of what your efforts can make in the lives of others in the lives of people who have taken an oath, much like we have to protect and to serve and to uphold the constitution. I think so often we feel like it’s an overwhelming, almost impossible proposition we’re up against, but if we can all take that attitude.

Travis Yates is a commander with a large municipal police department and author of “The Courageous Police Leader: A Survival Guide for Combating Cowards, Chaos & Lies.” His risk management and leadership seminars have been taught to thousands of professionals across the world. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and Doctoral Candidate in Strategic Leadership.