After 30 years of law enforcement experience including 26 in supervision and management, I’ve seen both the good and the bad this great profession has to offer. I’ve worked with some of the greatest human beings that God placed on this planet while at the same time I’ve witnessed all the gossip, back stabbing, lying and chaos that any profession, including law enforcement has in it.

People are people and sometimes people suck. That’s why we call policing a job and not a vacation with friends.

Entering upper management in law enforcement is akin to church leadership. Everyone in the pews (or community citizens) looks at the leaders as somehow they have some special ability to be a police chief or major or captain and they automatically assume that their leadership style and how they treat others is positive. After all, they got to the top somehow and that must be their innate charisma and intellect?

If you’ve ever gone from the church pews to behind the scenes, you understand how it is in law enforcement.

Sometimes, leaders suck.

It is so bad in policing that we even have a joke for it. As soon as someone gets promoted to a higher rank, they get asked by their co-workers when the “spine removal” surgery is scheduled.

As in most comedy, there is a small element of truth to the joke. Every police officer has seen a stand up officer, willing to do everything right, that turns into quite the opposite once they put the brass on their collar. Clearly it’s not the majority but it’s enough that the joke is told in every agency in America.

The Playbook

The truth is that there is a very good reason that “spine removal” surgeries are popular in law enforcement leadership. 20 years ago I was a brand new captain breathing fire. I was intent on changing it all for the better and I couldn’t understand why others seemed so apathetic.

Then it happened.

Myself and a few other like minded colleagues were talking, pleading and even arguing in a staff meeting when I paused and looked around. I saw seasoned commanders and chiefs just sitting quiet. By all accounts, they were popular, they were liked and many were on an upward trajectory to the top.

They had the secret sauce that no one cared to share with me.

If you want to be successful, get in line with the narrative…don’t rock the proverbial boat…and agree with the boss every chance you get. Some may call it political correctness but those rules constantly change. I call it “go with the narrative no matter what.”

Get in line and stay there!

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like this everywhere and and with everyone but in a general sense, many get ahead by apathy. The kind of apathy that occurs when your spine is missing.

They get ahead by playing the game…They change.

Don’t Change

A retired police officer that I have great respect for walked up to me this week and said that he loved my leadership style because from the day I started on the job to now, I never changed.

That sounds weird because we all change in this career, especially in the waist and hair line. What he meant was, is that as the ranks came, how I treated people didn’t change.

Frankly, I don’t even know how that’s a compliment because there shouldn’t be another way. It’s like saying I take care of my kids…I’m supposed to take care of my kids.

But his words were both encouraging and frightful.

How did law enforcement leadership get so bad that we have a standard joke that everyone knows?

Why are we rewarding this change and how can we get back to leadership that makes a difference?

I don’t have all the answers but I know where the solution starts.

It starts with everyone reading this at this very moment.

It starts with the first day rookie making a commitment to treating others right regardless of rank or status.

It starts with the up and coming wannabe administrator and the decisions they make today to not change even though it could harm their future advancement.

Ultimately, it just has to starts today and the future will take care of itself.

Lead On & Stay Courageous!

Dr. Travis Yates retired as a commander with a large municipal police department after 30 years of service. He is the 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 with a Doctorate Degree in Strategic Leadership and the CEO of the Courageous Police Leadership Alliance.