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The Limits of Leadership

As a new police chief, one of the most surprising (and frustrating) things that I learned was just how limited I was in my ability to effect change.  From the tiny town I first led in to the somewhat larger (and much busier) city that I now have the privilege of policing in, the pattern has remained the same.  There is a tendency in the community to look to the police department for solutions to community problems.  Police are usually the most visible arm of the government; we wear readily identifiable uniforms and drive around in a car that has the City’s name on it.  We are also the proverbial jack of all trades of the government.  If something doesn’t neatly fit into another governmental department’s duties, who gets called?  The police, of course.  

It is not surprising, therefore, that the public so often looks to their local law enforcement to fix the problems in their community.  In matters of crime and public safety, it’s even more understandable.  As a new chief, I welcomed the challenge and opportunity to address the many concerns brought to me and my department.  What I quickly came to realize was just how little power I had to address so many of these issues.  This, coupled with the public’s expectation that a chief can largely do whatever he or she wants, made for a very difficult situation.

As a young chief, I attended numerous classes where I was encouraged to follow various "best practices". There was obviously an expectation that I would return to my city and put these practices into play.  It was always a dash of cold water on these idealistic endeavors when one of my bosses would simply say “no”.  You see, police chiefs almost always answer to a city manager, mayor, or other executive authority who hasn’t been to the same classes and, quite frankly, may have been told something totally different in the classes they attended.  Sometimes, simple self-interest may be in play.  I’ve been told countless times by mentors or instructors that it’s important to be as transparent as possible with the public.  I’ve always tried to practice that advice.  One city administrator that I worked for, however, generally objected to wading into anything controversial.  He preferred to hide and hope the issue would fade away in time.  At one point, he even tried to prevent me from informing the city council and the public that a city employee was being indicted for embezzling government funds.  Sometimes non-law enforcement leadership may choose to take an approach that limits a chief in his ability to effect positive change in the community.  That leader’s approach may be downright wrong, but if he’s not breaking the law there isn’t much a chief can do about it.

Most often, the limiting factor in affecting change doesn’t come from above, but from around.  As with any community, mine struggles with illegal drugs.  There are drug dealers and drug users.  Like many other small communities throughout the US, we’ve also been affected by the opioid epidemic.  When I assumed leadership of the police department, many people naturally looked to me to address the issues.  Our department has made great strides toward this goal.  Our drug arrests have increased every year.  We quickly assigned an officer from our department to a regional task force, and numerous higher-level drug busts have taken place because of this.  We’ve done a great job, but we aren’t going to solve the problem alone.  Stomping out this issue requires much more than enforcement.  Many factors go into the drug problem, so many factors must be addressed to remedy it.  Unfortunately, many other governmental entities have not been willing to make the issue a priority. 

I could cite a million other examples.  I’ve had important items altered or slashed from my budget (before it ever even made it to the city council) by people who were safe in bed at home later when I needed that item.  That’s simply the way things work in government.  Different departments or organizations have different goals, and their priorities don’t always line up with mine.  

Furthermore, fixing a drug problem is about far more than enforcement.  I haven’t even begun to discuss the need to address broken homes, provide mentorship for troubled youth, or the need for resources for those that want to break their addiction.  These too, are things that are beyond the scope or reach of any police department.

This issue certainly isn’t limited to the law enforcement function of government.  One of the few things that I remember from the many textbooks I read in college has to do with the Office of the Governor of Florida.  The State of Florida has a “weak” executive branch.  That is, the Governor doesn’t get to appoint many of the more important members of his cabinet like many other governors do.  The Attorney General, the Chief Financial Officer, and the Commissioner of Agriculture.  Needless to say, one of these members may have different views on issues than the Governor, and he has no authority to replace them.  However, the average citizen isn’t going to take the time to learn that the Commissioner of Agriculture is actually responsible for whatever they’re angry about.  They will simply blame the governor.

So, leaders are often called upon to address problems that are (in reality) well beyond their ability to fix alone.  How does one cope with this?  They use the tools that are available to them and work within the system.  They use relationships when possible, force within the confines of the system when necessary, and lead by inspiration.  

In Tennessee, we have a regional hero by the name of Buford Pusser.  Pusser was a lawman in McNairy County in the late 60s and early 70s.  He was known to carry a large stick with which he supposedly exacted justice on evil-doers.  However much of his legacy may have been exaggerated, Pusser did go to war with the established criminal enterprises in the area.  That is evidenced by the fact that they tried to kill him in 1967.  Several movies would later be made based on Pusser’s exploits and the term “Walking Tall” has become part of our dialect when we want to refer to a lawman who is made of sterner stuff.  As much as I love the romantic imagery of John Wayne type leaders who blow into town and single-handedly change things for the better, it rarely works that way.  Pusser was a tough man for a tough time who did what he had to do, but long-term change in this day and age requires partnerships and working within the system.  It means going beyond addressing the bad people who are in certain positions and actually addressing the bad systems in place.  That type of change takes partnership and collaboration.  You have to form solid relationships with other stakeholders.  It’s hard work, and it takes an inordinate amount of time. If you're trying to effect change in government, you have to scrape, claw and dig for every inch of progress you make.

As a police chief, I’ve always had a county sheriff with whom I share jurisdiction.  These relationships are sometimes hard work.  By the nature of the jobs, chiefs and sheriffs sometimes have conflicting goals.  All too often, I’ve seen chiefs and sheriffs let their relationships deteriorate to outright personal hate.  When this happens, it’s the citizens who suffer.  There are numerous other stakeholders that I make a point of maintaining positive relationships with.  They run the government I work for, they run domestic violence shelters, children’s programs, hospitals, and any number of other things that play into my department’s mission.  I can’t control what these other leaders do, but it’s imperative that I have a good working relationship with them.  It’s only through that relationship that I can ask them to understand how the things their organization does affects my ability to keep my community safe.

While having open, quality relationships with fellow leaders is imperative, it’s equally important to not be too cozy with anyone.  Even after eight years of being a police chief, I’m still shocked at how much doesn’t get done in local government because someone doesn’t want to offend a friend.  This seems to be especially true in small towns, where we all have to see each other at church and the grocery store.  Over and over, I’ve seen local leaders knowingly let problems go on for years because the offending party is a “good guy.”  Many times, I’ve heard numerous board members (who oversee an organization) complain about how ineffective the organization’s director is.  They’ll discuss it private at a party, but they won’t take a vote to discipline or replace them.  So, because they don’t want to do something difficult, an entire community suffers until someone decides to retire.  At some point we cross a line where our desire to not hurt someone’s feelings becomes immoral.  If you are a public servant, you have a responsibility to see that the organization is run as efficiently as possible.  You can’t expect the taxpayer to pay for sub-par service because you don’t want to suffer personal discomfort by upsetting someone.  The same, to some extent, goes for a leader in a church, business or any other organization.  If you want to effect change, sometimes you have to rock the boat.  That may mean being unliked or even attacked at times.

Finally, it’s important to remember that leading isn’t always just managing an organization or navigating the politics of a locality.  It also means inspiring.  You may be in a position where you’re really hamstrung.  Whether it’s because of the lack of vision by those above you, or the ineptitude of those around you, you can’t seem to make any headway toward changing your organization for the better.  You may not be able to effect change because you don’t have the power to do so.  You might not be in a supervisory position at all.  That doesn’t mean you can’t lead.  The greatest form of leadership is inspiration.  I didn’t know Buford Pusser, and it’s hard to really gauge the guy based on information that’s available.  Hollywood has taken a run at memorializing him several times, but it’s probably safe to say that those aren’t true representations of the man.  From what I do know about him, I’m willing to bet that Sheriff Pusser didn’t attend a lot of leadership seminars.  Whatever the political climate that Pusser worked in, I’m guessing it was probably less conducive to effective change than any that you or I will ever work in.  Even if it was, I can’t imagine that the big man with the big stick was probably the type to maneuver through the local politics and make positive organizational changes for more effective government.  But we’re talking about him today.  Whether or not Hollywood has embellished his story, Pusser became a legend.  He became something bigger than himself.  That image lives on, and inspires us a generation later.  The details of who Pusser really was don’t matter much now, because the image of a lone man standing up to the bad guys still makes us believe that one determined man or woman can make a difference.  That’s the power of inspiration.  Even if you aren’t in a position to orchestrate change right now, we all have the ability to inspire those around us to greater things.

It’s frustrating to be called upon, as a leader, to address things that we might not have actual authority over.  Effecting change in these areas outside our direct control requires the humility to effect good relationships with fellow stakeholders, the boldness to confront problems by working within the system, and the understanding that any of us can inspire those around us just by our actions and attitude.  Finally, we might do well to remember the words of CS Lewis: “It is not your business to succeed, but to do right.  When you have done so the rest lies with God.”  Sometimes doing the right thing, regardless of the outcome, is motivation enough.

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