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Leadership Tips for Team Unity

Forming and maintaining a SWAT team is much more than procuring “special weapons,” or sitting through an advanced tactics class. Real teams are a thing of beauty, and when properly tuned they create synergy; together they can have an effect greater than the sum of their parts. Real teams perform better than they should. But where do you begin? What steps can be taken to create and maintain the operational tie that binds, and assist your organization in reaping the benefits that follow? The first step not surprisingly, is with the people themselves. It has accurately been stated that the most valuable asset of any organization is its people, and that adage is especially true in SWAT. If the SWAT team “end game” is operational excellence, begin by selecting your personnel accordingly. With that in mind, it is important to note that some of the best people for this job are passed over during tryouts, especially when large numbers of applicants are present. Separating the wheat from the chaff requires a selection process focusing less on best shot or fastest runner, and more on character, work ethic, decision-making, and a “team before self” attitude. This effort is labor intensive, and includes such things as an in-basket exercise, an oral presentation, an oral interview board and a background investigation, which includes supervisory recommendations, peer reviews, personnel/internal affairs file review and interviews with family and friends. Each step is geared towards identifying those likely to thrive in a close-knit “team” environment. Unfortunately, indicators of this are not always readily apparent, and significant input from the department psychologist prior to and during the selection process will prove invaluable Some will disagree, and insist that only objective criteria such as marksmanship and physical fitness should be considered. Job related practical skills are very important, and proven ability in key operational areas must be a part of the overall process. Likewise, they should only be weighted as a “pass-fail” qualifier to advance to the next more important phase-which evaluates inherent human skills as opposed to mechanical skills that can be learned. Many contemporary departments approach this process in a multi-tiered fashion. Objective Skills Assessment On day one, start with marksmanship. The applicant must meet or exceed an established standard using the police service pistol. Then go to physical fitness. The applicant must meet or exceed an established validated standard involving strength, endurance, speed, and agility, then meet or exceed an established validated standard on a duty related obstacle course. Those who pass both tests are given a packet of information detailing three non-police topics, and invited to participate the following day. On day two, do the presentation/ interview, starting with the oral presentation. The applicant is given five minutes to present on one of the three topics (chosen at random by the board immediately prior to the presentation) reviewed the previous evening. Then the in basket exercise. The applicant is given 10 minutes to review a written police (not tactical in nature) scenario, then write down how he would handle the situation presented. The panel interview is next. The applicant is asked questions concerning his in basket exercise, personal and professional goals, reasons for seeking a position on the team, job knowledge and experience, and thoughts concerning what he would bring to the team if selected. Those who successfully complete the participatory phases are subjected to the background investigation outlined above. The results of the process are submitted to the team leader and commander, who then meet with existing team members to solicit input on the candidates. This is not a “black ball” session, but an opportunity for those who know the team best to offer candid opinions concerning the applicant’s suitability for further consideration. This is the final step in the selection process. The team leader and commander closely review the test results and input from the operators, then offer probationary appointments to those best suited for the job. This is a proven method of ratcheting up the team’s emotional quotient, which will increase their long-term probability of success during high-risk operations. But what can be done in the short term, if current members are not grounded in the team based principles outlined above? Problems such as this can be challenging, and are best handled by ensuring that the written unit mandate clearly articulates individual and collective team member duties and responsibilities. And by ensuring that behavior based goals, objectives, and expectations are clearly communicated to everyone. SWAT tenure, (in other words, who stays and who goes), is then based on compliance with this. Expectations Individual performance expectations are varied, but those that drive the team mentality generally include a couple of things. The first quality is mastering self-discipline. Operators must demonstrate their attention to detail and commitment to developing individual characteristics that add collectively to the team. Staying in top physical condition, controlling destructive eating and drinking habits, and maintaining a “good to go” readiness status (such as ensuring gear is kept in order by cleaning, replenishing, and securing equipment immediately after every operation-even when you are too tired to do it). Second, teams must look out for the best interest of their teammates. Some police officers are notorious practical jokers, and take great pleasure in singling out others for “a few laughs.” In reality, there is nothing funny, or for that matter logical, about victimizing someone who may later hold your life in his hands. Humor is an awesome force multiplier, but only when applied fairly and with a caring attitude. Those who make “sport” of other team members are not contributing to the health of the program. The team doctor (command element) should administer the antidote (transfer) for this cancer that is looming on the horizon. Third, teams must have developed areas of expertise. All team members have assigned duties, but each should choose an area of expertise and develop a hunger for mastering the skills that come with it. For example, don’t be satisfied simply being the breacher. That position has to find new and better ways to open the door, build tools that get the job done faster and safer, write a technical article in a trade journal so others can share in your knowledge, write a lesson plan and teach a class that people want to attend and raise the stock in your team-be the person other agencies seek out when they have questions about your area. Fourth, develop a tactical knowledge base. Assume the responsibility of researching, collecting, and archiving relevant information that pertains to your area of expertise. There will come a time when higher authority will question why something was “done that way.” Be in a position to immediately respond with data and documentation (IACP/NTOA model policies, best practices literature, CALEA standards, PERF recommendations, newspaper articles, notes from tactical conferences/training), that convincingly and conclusively argues that not only are your practices contemporary thinking, but on the cutting edge of the industry. Fifth in priority is to practice humility. In his book, Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff, Dr. Richard Carlson says, “People are drawn to those with a quiet, inner confidence, who don’t need to make themselves look good, be right all the time, or steal the glory.” Think about team before self. The victory is found not in what “I” do, but what “we” did. Sixth teams must develop a positive and accepting attitude towards change. Consider fundamental tactical concept number one: change is the nature of SWAT Also consider fundamental tactical concept number two: you can’t change number one. Accept that as reality or find another job. Those who grouse about, “being asked to do one thing, then sent to do another,” fail to grasp the reality that flexibility and quickly adapting to change is one of our greatest assets, and the reason SWAT Teams are the focus and solution to many of societies most challenging events. Tip of the Spear It has been said that leadership is the single most important aspect in determining the outcome at the crisis site. Likewise, the true leader has prepared his team well before it arrives at that point. He does this through personnel selection and development; operational readiness and team building. Operational readiness is a relatively simple process involving an agency/community threat assessment, procurement of tools/ equipment and high-speed specialized training to ensure that operators have the gear and know how to put it to good use. Team building is the “tip of the spear.” This is the unseen force multiplier that increases the probability of a coming out on top when things “go loud.” It is an abstract concept as compared to personnel, training, and equipment, and likewise harder to quantify. As a result, most team leaders fail to overtly address it, and if they consider it all erroneously assume “group” means “team.” Those who choose to address it do so in a variety of ways, with varying degrees of success. Programs that consistently hit the team building mark appear to have a common thread that ties them together, and it’s challenging training programs that create shared adversity. One Goes— All Go Strength and unity are forged between the hammer and anvil of mutual suffering. This is a touchy subject for some agencies, but a concept that has passed the test of time. Those who share dangerous challenges and adversity together, come out stronger and more unified on the other side. The results are proven-the challenge is finding the appropriate mechanism in civilian law enforcement to exploit it. The most common and productive venue appears to be extremely demanding physical training exercises. Team “iron policeman” and SWAT Roundup type contests drive participants to their physical limit, and effectively build on this unifying mentality. One may fall back, but the team must regroup and the share the load to complete the exercise together. What do things like this accomplish? Why would anyone subject officers to mental and physical abuse? The bond that is formed through such adversity is what pushes operators through countless doors, holds the bunker for hours on a barricade, sits motionless in a steaming raid van, and then chirps up and says, “it just doesn’t get any better than this.” Lesser operators are looking for the eject button. Exercises such as this help generate the reliance on team that carries you when times get tough, and creates the spirit of the Delta Operator in Black Hawk Down who explains why we do it; “for the guy next to you.” Team. Others. Selfless. Service. That’s what it’s all about. Steve Ijames has been an officer for 25 years, and is currently a major in charge of all Springfield, MO Police criminal investigations. He is a graduate of the 186th FBI National Academy, and is an internationally recognized expert in SWAT tactics. He may be reached via e-mail at

Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2005

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