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Velvet-Covered Nightsticks

Written by Mark W. Field

As a child, when I misbehaved, I was sure to get “the look” from my mother and father. I have vivid memories of the furrowed eyebrows, intensity of eye contact, and pursed lips of the look. It makes me shudder just to remember it. There was nothing either comforting or reassuring about the look, and invariably, it signaled impending discipline of some sort. The look was to be respected, the look was to be feared, and above all, the look was to be avoided at all costs. And don’t even think about averting your eyes away from the look.

However, just as I can recall the look, I also remember the tenderness of my father’s care after he disciplined me. I remember the whispered assurances of his love for me. I remember the warmth of his embrace as he held me in his arms. I remember his tenderness as he gently and patiently explained why I had been disciplined and how I could learn from the experience. He was not a mean-spirited man or severe in his discipline. As a matter of fact, I was never spanked by my father. Rather, his loving correction was intended to develop me into a man of character.

Effective leaders, just like my father, are unique human beings. They must balance the toughness likened to that of a soldier with the tender authoritativeness of a school teacher. In my considered opinion, the combination of these attributes is truly exclusive to law enforcement leaders.

I consciously chose to describe these leaders under whom I have been honored to serve as “velvet-covered nightsticks.” They are firm and strong on the inside about their moral compass, convictions and ethical bearings, but at the same time, affable and congenial on the outside. They are tough but tender.

Velvet-covered nightstick leaders make difficult decisions, but at the same time, they act as emotional caretakers to the people their choices affect. They instill discipline, but they also provide encouragement and inspiration. They “care” for their people but do not “care take” them. And they exercise the courage to tell people not what they want to hear but what they need to hear.

Some leaders are tough to the core. But it is that same insensitivity that creates a barrier for them to effectively connect with their employees. Oblivious of the emotional climate and atmosphere around them, they instead strongly rely on authority and scare tactics to earn the allegiance of their team. Other leaders go the extra mile to earn the admiration, trust and respect of those they lead. They love to be seen as the “good guy,” and they go soft on their team, which is a danger located on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Either inherently through natural leadership ability and interpersonal skills or by having been taught through formal educational experiences, velvet-covered nightstick leaders know the true value of situational leadership. They don’t just merely have the knowledge to regurgitate the classroom theory but are dynamic in its practical application to real-life situations.

They also balance being a manager (providing the guns and cars for their people) as well as a leader (rendering the inspirational and visionary aspects) and knowing when to lean in either direction when situation or circumstances demand more of one approach than the other. In other words, they possess an ability to know when to kick and when to pat. In this aspect, velvet-covered nightstick leaders actively employ a sports coach mentality; they know when to bark orders and when to practice servant leadership—they roll up their sleeves and work alongside others and encourage them.

My most effective track coach inherently knew when to yell at me while leering from the trackside with an anger-induced, enraged and livid red face and when to run alongside me on the track infield, spurring me on to break my own best time.

They confront problems but consider different perspectives. By actively addressing problems, velvet-covered nightstick leaders are peacemakers as opposed to peacekeepers. At the same time, such a leader remains open to the perspective of others. Although supremely confident, wise leaders know the fallibility of their judgment and turn an attentive ear to those who share differing opinions.

At the same time, they understand the value of a dynamic leadership team composed of diverse personality and leadership styles and the inherent dangers for one-dimensional management team. They are committed to results and relationships.

Leaders with a velvet-covered nightstick mentality refuse to compromise goals or take the expedient way out of tough spots. They relentlessly set the bar high so the team achieves its potential. Yet, all the while, good leaders value people just as much as productivity. They never sacrifice relationships simply to get results. They also understand that in an age of the quick fix that quality results and relationships take time. They are professional and personal.

Velvet-covered nightstick leaders maintain an aura of professionalism in the workplace at all times. They stay poised in the most stress-filled moments and maintain control of their emotions. While approachable, they reserve part of themselves (their fears, knowledge, and insights) so that they can effectively motivate the team from a place of authority.

At the same time, leaders don’t want to come across as aloof, distant or plastic. The best leaders are warm, genuinely interested in their teammates, and intentional in understanding what makes each person unique. Additionally, to connect with the team, they may selectively disclose information about themselves or even let down their emotional guard during a meeting. Leaders who aspire to be velvet-covered nightsticks develop thick skin. They graciously accept criticism and welcome confrontation. Then, they take pains to win over their critics by reaching out to them. They go the extra mile to wade through conflict until resolution can be reached.

They are respected and approachable. Leaders earn respect on the basis of what they have done. More often than not, respect is gained on difficult ground. Adverse circumstances test the mettle and tensile strength of leaders and show their true merit. For velvet-coved nightstick leaders, respect is balanced by approachability. An approachable leader has a consistent mood, is quick to forgive, willing to apologize and shows authenticity. Secure leaders aren’t constantly seeking validation from others, and as such, they are free to add value to those they lead rather than deriving value from the approval of those around them.

People are drawn to leaders who value them. They desire to be allied with and approach a leader who makes them feel encouraged, helps them grow and treats them honestly. And, people will follow the velvet-covered nightstick leader because they consistently do things at the right time and for the right reasons.

To be successful, leaders must master five imperatives. The first is kinship, which is persuading officers that they understand and care for them. The second is prescription, which is being able to tell officers exactly what they want and why. The third is sanction, which is convincing officers they will be rewarded if they fulfill the organizational mission and are held accountable if they do not. The fourth is action, which is knowing when act and when to wait). The last imperative is example, which is showing that they share in the officers’ dangers.

So, as much as velvet-covered nightstick leadership may depart from traditional textbook descriptions and classroom theory, it is nonetheless still leadership. It is not a form of management, and velvet-covered nightstick leaders are not bureaucrats in uniform. Far too often, supervisors are viewed as the first to take control, lead the charge, make all the decisions and first to act. Foremost, effective leaders must possess the inner courage to lead their people while at the same time finding the conviction to play the hero no more.

Mark W. Field is the chief of police with the Wheaton, IL Police. He can be reached at mfield@wheaton.il.us.


Published in Law and Order, Jul 2008

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