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Bridging the Generation Gap

Written by Robert Roy Johnson

Leaders who have advanced to the upper ranks of their departments have hopefully added a few hash marks to their sleeves along the way. The skills and maturity that accrue with age and service time are invaluable to supervision. It is expected that the passing years lend themselves to a significant accumulation of practical experience. As well, with age, it is hoped, comes wisdom. The veteran captain should, ideally, over the years, have developed and honed an effective and respected leadership style.

Those mounting years though also result in an age disparity between the seasoned captain and the generally significant number of younger officers who the captain supervises. If not recognized and addressed, this generation gap can result in a disconnect between the rank and file and their leader. Fortunately, age difference is a minor obstacle that is easily mitigated.

To begin, try a little self-deprecating humor. Face it, the age difference is already out there. Each day when you stand before roll call—those hash marks proudly displayed, a touch (or more) of gray in the coif, a few crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes—you are who you are. Acknowledge the age gap with some light humor. Self-deprecating humor humanizes you, and a sense of humor is appreciated by any generation.

Open your mind to what interests your younger officers. For instance, while you may not necessarily possess the technological know-how to fully appreciate interactive video games, that does not preclude you from acquiring some understanding of what impact they have on your officers. Just as television and the movies influenced your approach to police work, so too do interactive game scenarios affect how the younger generation of police officers approach their duties.

Additionally, while taking care to remain true to your own character and nature, you might nonetheless try on some youthful ideas and see how they fit. Many of the current generation of police officers have embraced both physical fitness and continuing education.

Neither of these endeavors, at one time, not really all that long ago, was considered necessary to a police career. Perhaps either or both of these might be something you are able to adopt to your lifestyle. Return to school or join your officers in the gym. You can then both lead by example and share the common experience.

Also, do not be reluctant to regale the youngsters with a few “in my day” anecdotes. Technological changes have occurred rapidly in the law enforcement field. What is taken for granted today may not have been available 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Tell your people how the in-car cameras, advances in communication technology, and in-car computers, just to name a few examples, have altered the way police officers approach their daily responsibilities.

Experience gives perspective. Perspective engenders thoughtfulness and due consideration for impact and application. For just one example, there is no question that in-car cameras have significantly altered the police officer’s approach to street stops. Take the opportunity to share your pre-in-car camera perspective as a kicking off point for a critical discussion of the implications that new and emerging technology has on a police officer’s operating routine.

Also, tell a few war stories. Yes, some may roll their eyes when the veterans spin a tale or two. But these are teaching opportunities. As a leader, you have an obligation to share the experiences hard earned in your career. If you honestly and generously expose your mistakes as well as your finest moments, most will take away a valuable lesson or two from the narrative of your career.

Finally, some things never change. And it is essential that you bring this point home to your officers from the perspective of a long career. Officers need to know that the law enforcement profession is about people now and was about people 10, 20, and even 30 years ago. Caring, making a difference, compassion, integrity and professionalism are now, have always been, and will always be part and parcel of what it is to be a police officer.

Tell them about the times you forgot that. Tell them about the consequences you or others suffered because you forgot that. The captain should be a teacher and a mentor. Your experience makes you uniquely qualified for both. Embrace these roles, and your officers will respect you for the wisdom that comes with your age.

Robert Roy Johnson is a 38-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, currently at the rank of captain. A management consultant and speaker, he is an adjunct professor in Public Safety Management at Calumet College of Saint Joseph. He can be reached at robroyj@comcast.net.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2010

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