Self-Examine: Are You a Quality Leader?

Each of the Twelve Principles is followed by a set of questions that you need to ask yourself if you are to maintain of become an effective police leader. At the end there are a number of leadership scenarios that can be used.

I’ve been in a leadership role for most of my adult life as a marine sergeant, police trainer, chief of police, and parish pastor. I’ve learned a lot along the way, made my share of mistakes and I think I know what works and what will continue to work. When I clarified my leadership style and described how I wanted to lead and how I wanted the leaders in my police department to lead, I came up with 12 principles — what I called “Quality Leadership.”

These principles are not new. They go back many years and even centuries in their practice. That is because over the years effective leaders think first about the men and women they are “privileged to lead.” (I have to thank retired Marine Corps general Al Gray for this quote.) Effective leaders listen to the ideas of others and always, always, treat others with dignity and respect. They know who they are and the values for which they stand and adhere. They are honest, emotionally controlled, mature, and grow in their craft as lifetime learners.

Perhaps you don’t see this among your leaders today. I think you should and, as far as possible, you should demand this of those to whom you report.

Leaders matter and they matter more than most leaders realize. Leadership is an art. It can be learned. It takes practice and a willingness to be vulnerable: “What can I do to help you be a better and more effective member of our team? How am I doing as your leader? What is it you would like me to do more of? What is it you would like me to do less of?

If you read through the following 12 Principles of Quality Leadership and honestly answer the included questions, you may begin to understand what I am talking about.

Incorporating these principles into your life will not only improve your work life, it will also help improve your life at home. Give it a try!

Principles 1-6

1. Improve systems and examine processes before placing blame on people. Continually monitor the systems you are responsible for to improve the quality of the process and, ultimately, the quality of the output. Leaders have responsibility for the improvement of systems — this is creative and important work. In the past, we have emphasized that the job of a manager was to watch over, maintain and inspect systems. Our job is to improve these systems — continually, incessantly and forever. If we see our job as inspecting systems we can be replaced by a machine — a computer. Our employees also see that kind of work as unimportant. If we see our job as the improvement of systems we cannot be replaced by a machine — only creative and caring people can do this kind of work and our employees know it. This is also a good human behavior rule. People don’t like to fail. When they do, it is wise to look at systems first. Only after systems are examined is it fair and safe to examine how people may have failed. We should be trying to get at the root of the problem, not attempting to fix blame on an individual. If a system is out of control it is only a matter of time before the next employee gets in trouble. The solution is to fix the system. Leaders work on the system; employees work in the system. Standards need to be set, feedback given, and control limits established. There will be variation in performance but it should be within the established upper and lower control limits. Variation is a fact of life and to be expected. Those who fall below acceptable performance should not be punished. Our JOB is to ascertain what they need from us — training, encouragement, and support, feedback — to get them into the range of acceptable work performance. Think of three instances of an employee in trouble. Which situations appear to be a result of a system problem and which instances appear to be a person problem?

  • How would you approach an employee who is having trouble because of a system problem?
  • How would you approach an employee with a person problem? How are the two approaches different?
  • How do you know which problem is the result of a systems problem and which is the result of a person problem?

2. Have a customer orientation and focus toward employees and citizens. A customer orientation and focus means that we listen to our customers. Customers may be citizens, elected officials, employees, or interest groups. As supervisors, our direct customers are our employees who provide service to their customers — the citizens and taxpayers. Listening and being responsive to citizens is our goal. There are, of course, many parameters — the law, ethics, and budgetary constraints. In this era of community policing listening to the customer is a vital part of the job. Professionals do not have the exclusive market anymore of knowing what is best for their patients, clients, or customers. Today, people want to be heard and participate.

  • Who are your customers?
  • Who are persons in your organization who could consider you their customer?
  • How could you get honest feedback from your customers?
  • How could this make your job easier?

3. Believe that the best way to improve the quality of work or service is to ask and listen to employees who are doing the work. As supervisors, we do not do the frontline work. We depend on others to do the job of responding directly to the customers; the citizens of our city. It has been a long time since most of us have performed this job. Therefore, we depend on the men and women who do this job to tell us what they need to get the job done. As bosses, one of the most important things we can do for our employees is to ask them what they need and listen to what they have to say. Listening is the difficult part for those of us who have spent years learning how to tell people what to do. Active listening is a skill that can be learned and developed. Using the inquiry process, which is asking the right questions, is also a skill that can be learned. Quality leaders refrain from telling; they ask the right question; how do you know that? What have you learned through this effort? What kind of help do you need from me? The power of this is that an individual comes to his/her own solution with the help – not direction – of the leader.  Listening and questioning are important skills to develop as a supervisor.  Employees want bosses who are willing to listen and we need employees who will honestly tell us about what’s going on.

  • What are the characteristics of a good listener?
  • How do you know when someone is really listening to you?
  • Why do leaders need to ask and listen?
  • Why is listening such an important leadership skill?

4. Be committed to the problem-solving process; use it and let data, not emotions, drive decisions. Use the problem-solving process: identify the nature and scope of the problem, seek several alternatives that will solve the problem, choose the best alternative, implement the chosen alternative, follow-up on its implementation (correct, if necessary, to make it better). Too often we use our emotions or feelings to choose a course of action. This principle encourages the use of data, figures, information and facts to drive that decision- making. Soliciting input is not data – it is important but let’s not call it data. You should know the data tools; how to gather data, how to show it graphically, and how to look at variation of data. Let data do the talking. When employees ask for new things or ways of doing things encourage them to use data to support their recommendations — not use of power (We have all decided that…) or use of feelings (You know this is the better way of doing that…). Collecting data is using statistical tools to understand, bring into control and improve a process.  Using data will help our decision-making because we will be able to answer that extremely important question — How do we know this is true?

  • Can you think of instances when you have witnessed data being used instead of emotions to make a good decision?
  • Think of a problem that is confronting you now. How can data be used to resolve that problem? How could that data be visually portrayed?
  • When problems are presented to you, what are some data-related questions you can ask?

5. Be a facilitator and coach. Develop an open atmosphere that encourages providing and accepting feedback. A leader’s job is challenging and gives us opportunity for personal growth because it has such new opportunities. Being an effective Quality leader is being a coach, a teacher, student, role-model and, most important, a champion for sustained improvement. We are in the business of helping people develop and experience personal growth. Our employee’s goal is to deliver a quality service to our citizens by being responsive and sensitive to those citizen’s needs. We can model this behavior by being responsive and sensitive to our employee’s needs. All this can only be accomplished in an atmosphere of trust, honesty and openness. Part of this process is honest feedback. An honest feedback system is essential for the creation of a quality organization. Feedback is for the improvement of the receiver. It is not designed to make the giver feel better by venting. Venting is sometimes necessary, but don’t mistake it for feedback. Leaders have consistency of purpose — a vision as to where they are going. Leaders develop the competency of their people. They are committed. Their employees know where they stand!

  • What is coaching? What is the difference between telling and coaching?
  • Can you think of a time when you were coached to do better? How did you feel? Why?
  • Which is more difficult, giving or accepting feedback? Why is that?
  • How could your workplace become more open?

6. Encourage creativity through risk-taking and be tolerant of honest mistakes. We will never get creativity and innovation from our employees when we tell them they cannot make mistakes. All that we know about people tells us that creativity is chilled and repressed in such an environment. It is not easy to accept honest mistakes. The price we pay for zero defects, however, is zero creativity. Many of us have been working together for many years. We all remember each other’s mistakes and failures. Without forgiving and forgetting we will never be comfortable in the workplace. If we don’t permit honest mistakes new ways and ideas will never be tried. It’s simply too risky in an authoritarian organization. Quality and creativity is the result of a constant process of trying and improving.

  • How do you see quality and creativity being related?
  • How would you encourage more creativity in your employees?
  • What barriers might you encounter?
  • What would be the steps you would take to creatively improve a system and overcome those barriers or obstacles?
  • What is an honest mistake? How would you demonstrate leadership to your employees in these situations?

This post was originally published April 8, 2019 at David C. Couper’s blog, Improving Police.

David Couper
Former Chief at Madison Police Department
Madison, WI