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Be More Like Zeus: The Art of Covert Leadership
Written by Steve Albrecht
The Greeks had it right. Sometimes the best powers are the ones used sparingly. As a police supervisor, it may help to start acting more like Zeus and less like Bruce Willis. Try to find an action movie starring Bruce Willis in which he is asked to simply watch the action instead of initiating it. There isn’t one. He always takes charge, and people know it from the first frame.
Take this into consideration: in the station house, you can take charge from the edges of the issue, not the center of it. Zeus, known to the ancient Greeks as the “king of the gods,” is usually depicted in art in one of two roles: either tossing down lighting bolts from above, or sitting on his throne, observing events on Earth below. One portrayal suggests action, the other reflection.
Being a boss means that you hold power over your people. Some of this power is actual (like using discipline), and some is symbolic (rank). Actual power means you control the activities of your officers, and symbolic power means they should look to you for leadership based on your experience, training, job knowledge and ability to think under stress.
Having rank does not automatically mean people will respect you. Having power but not respect from your employees rarely leads to positive outcomes. More times than not it leads to low morale, apathy and vicious gossip.
Some police supervisors try to demonstrate their leadership by being way too involved with daily operations. They get too caught up in the minutiae of day-to-day activities and don’t focus on setting the direction or leading by example.
Getting stuck in the tall grass of endless details is tiring, personally and professionally. You go home tired, and your officers get weary of their boss always riding to the rescue, trying to fix what isn’t broken or obsessing over small (or stupid) matters instead of presiding over bigger ones.
For example, consider the daily duties at a police department, including briefings and roll call. Ask yourself, “WWZD?” (What Would Zeus Do?) In most cases, he would sit back in his chair and watch the process.
When the group gets stuck on some issue, as they invariably do, Zeus would wait to see if they could solve it themselves. If not, then it’s time for a suggestion, a relevant story or an unusual idea.
When this unsticks the group, Zeus can lean back again, watching and waiting for the opportunity (if necessary) to provide another useful solution that supports the team.
After the third time Zeus has unclogged the creative or operational pipeline, the group members start to turn, almost intuitively, to look for his next idea. This is covert leadership, in which the police leader knows he is respected for his ideas, as opposed to just having chevrons, bars or stars.
Covert leaders don’t assume their people will follow them; they demonstrate why their people can follow them by being present at the meeting or field scene, but not ruling it via the thunderbolt. Your people already know you’re in charge of them. There is no need to remind them by micromanaging into reverse delegation chaos. “If I want something done right, I’ll do it myself,” was not in Zeus’ vocabulary, and it shouldn’t be part of your leadership approach.
The best police supervisors are the ones who operate covertly, in stealth, and by letting their officers solve problems single-handedly or as part of the natural back-and-forth team process.
You can lead from a distance, all while being in the same room or standing nearby in the field. You can always step in if the situation demands urgency or precision.
We will always need police supervisors. But in this job, people can learn a lot about being better cops by doing the right things themselves. Your job is to be present but not always active in the decisions that need to be made. There is power in being more like Zeus.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include “Contact & Cover,” “Streetwork,” “Surviving Street Patrol,” and “Tactical Perfection for Street Cops.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, May 2011
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