Are You Serving Those You Lead?

The Harvard Business Review wrote a great piece this week How the U.S. Marines Encourage Service-Based Leadership by Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch. I think the piece is fantastic and it spurred some great questions and discussion in police training circles.

Brian Willis and internationally known police trainer who posted the piece asked; so why are we so slow as a profession to learn these lessons and adopt this philosophy? I see us making progress, but slowly. Keith Wenzel a former Dallas PD Sergeant asked; could it be that departments with poor leadership foster future leaders with the same failed leadership traits? Bad leaders mentoring potential leaders is a disaster? Kieth went on to say, As long as you have a system that bases an officers skills on the number of arrests and citations, you'll always have this problem. Of course, many will say that if you don't use a number, you will have lazy cops. We probably have more lazy supervisors under the "quota" system but it sure is easy to manage numbers and not people.

I agree with both Brian and Kieth, policing is way to slow to foster a positive organizational culture, as to why??? Very few want to make the effort to change. We are often stuck in the status quo and don't see the need. Sad because we need selfless leaders if we are to gain police legitimacy back which comes from street cops using their discretion as they interact with people. I also think Kieth nailed a big piece of this problem; if all we want is numbers that is all we will get. I have always said the worst place I could work is where people do exactly what they are told to do and nothing more or nothing less.

It is sad the numbers driven culture is so prevalent in policing and it does indeed affect leadership and the overall culture. If we are striving towards building trust in our communities and building back police legitimacy we need to be developing and applying better strategies and metrics to measure our effectiveness, that take into context where we work and then look at both the tangibles and intangibles that make meaningful and lasting change within police cultures which in turn effect our communities positively. 

Why I saw this article as so important is because many in police circles, see organizations like the Marine Corps as solely top down autocratic style of leadership. The believe leaders in the Marine Corps and other branches of the military shout out orders and like robots people respond. Yes this use too be, and in many military circles still is, the way many (BUT NOT ALL) leaders in the Marine Corps lead their troops. When I went through Marine Corps Boot Camp 37 years ago you often heard in response to I THINK! "you don't get paid to think." But things have drastically changed and from the too familiar don't think,  do as your told culture.

The Marine Culture has shifted to a bottoms up culture. They want the most junior people to make decisions as long as they are in accord with their commanders overall mission and intent.  They understand if you want the decision making cycle (OODA) to be fluid and fast frontline troops must be able to observe, orient, decide and act.

The Marine Corps culture is basked in tradition, but is still willing to continually learn and adapt. Its built on traits that are meaningful to all those who were ever part of the Marine Corps. In the  "The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War" Marines Magazine, January 1999 by Gen. Charles C. Krulak made an astute observation:

The inescapable lesson of Somalia and of other recent operations, whether humanitarian assistance, peace-keeping, or traditional warfighting, is that their outcome may hinge on decisions made by small unit leaders, and by actions taken at the lowest level. The Corps is, by design, a relatively young force. Success or failure will rest, increasingly, with the rifleman and with his ability to make the right decision at the right time at the point of contact.  

The same holds true in policing. To gain mutual trust within and organization like a police department which is suppose to be selflessly serving its community, developing a bottoms up climate where police officers are ready and willing even craving to take initiative is imperative in policing a free society. Are we as focused on service oriented traits as we are on numbers? If not why not?

The Harvard Business review Article talks about the origins of service based leadership and how Robert K. Greenleaf first introduced the concept of servant leadership to businesses in the mid-1900s.

The two of us learned about this approach, branded as service-based leadership, in the United States Marine Corps. The basis of service-based leadership is prioritizing your team’s needs before your own. As Marine officers, we always ate last, ensuring others had food on their plates before ours were filled. During down time, we kept our teams busy with training opportunities so they could broaden their skills, which also curtailed complacency. When it was dark and cold in the field, we made a point of being present on the lines (not hiding out in a warm tent) to show our teams we were right there with them. Through our actions, we demonstrated that we were willing to go without food, free time, and comfort to ensure our people knew they were supported.

The result? Our teams felt cared for and valued, and they demonstrated their loyalty through their initiative and engagement. While we never used an employee survey to measure the impact of service-based leadership, anecdotally it was clear: A majority of our team members had the Marine Corps emblem tattooed on their bodies. This was a strong symbol of the deep connection people felt between themselves and the team they were a part of — a connection so strong that individuals wanted to maintain it for the rest of their lives.


If managers want to get the most out of every team member, they can adopt many of the Marine Corps’s service-based leadership practices. Understanding the concept isn’t enough; they must overcome the three common barriers that prevent managers from putting the needs of their employees first: awareness, time, and unhealthy competition.

Many in policing are unaware of how too lead selflessly or they are stuck in the status quo which all too often is autocratic.

This article makes some great points on barriers to creating the type of culture i know we all crave in policing.


"Few managers are introduced to the concept of service-based leadership during their careers. Even business schools that tout leadership development rarely include it in their curricula. And when managers do learn about this approach, they often think it’s too simple to be effective. But at a fundamental level, it is a manager’s job to attend to employees’ needs. Communicating proactively, demonstrating empathy, and getting involved in team members’ goals can’t be delegated to HR. Managers need to know their team members on a personal level and understand their strengths, their goals, and what motivates them." Its okay to take care of your people. This is most especially so in policing where they are duty bound to take care of others. If their is no trust, no dignity and respect exhibited within the organization,  how can we as leaders expect it out in the community?


Even if managers are aware of the benefits of putting their employees’ needs before their own, the sheer pace of work often prevents them from being service-based leaders. Few managers feel they have the time to act on their good ideas about how to engage the team. They have to make an intentional effort to build service-based leadership into their work routines. They can start by scheduling 1–2 hours of space into their calendar each week for team engagement. It can begin with small actions — an agendaless call to discuss “what’s going on,” an impromptu invite for lunch or coffee, or an unscheduled visit to the shop floor or project space to see how the team’s doing.

When done well, service of others can save you time. Leadership by wandering around can a term coined by leadership guru Tom Peters help us take advantage of time so we can make a difference in those people we serve lives personally and professionally. Peter's says, “Human growth and development and success and aspiration to excellence business.” “We” [leaders] only grow when “they” [each and every one of our colleagues] are growing. “We” [leaders] only succeed when “they” [each and every one of our colleagues] are succeeding. “We” [leaders] only energetically march toward Excellence when “they” [each and every one of our colleagues] are energetically marching toward Excellence, Period.

Unhealthy Competition

Too often, businesses put an emphasis on star individuals who “win” consistently, with little emphasis on social cohesion. This stands in the way of serving employees. When we worked with a small team of managers who were each earning more than $2 million a year, we were surprised how much they squabbled every month about who contributed most to the bottom line and how each of them would be compensated. This infighting was a serious barrier to collaborating and kept them from their more important work: taking care of their team members. Once the team streamlined its compensation structure to ensure it rewarded performance, capturing a more complete picture of contributions, the arguments disappeared, and team members had the energy and capacity to focus less on themselves and more on the interests of their company and their employees, which they had overlooked.

My thought here as it relates to policing is obviously not in the amount each members salaries. Competition in policing stems around numbers. Who wrote the most tickets. Who made the most arrests! Who took more reports etc? We focus on whats easy to measure and all too often forget the intangible work being done by very good officers making a difference day in and day out. This breeds an unhealthy competition within organizations that make working together cohesively very rare.

These actions might seem simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. I was just recently spent a week with the Marines on Paris Island, training a group of Drill and Primary Marksman Instructors and despite their rich history of leaders eat last they still see a lot of the autocratic style of leading even as they strive to build a culture of service based leaders. Being of service to your employees is a day to day thing, not an event driven thing. It takes time, commitment, and effort, but the payoff is clear: people taking responsibility with joy, engagement, and higher performance. Be sure to read the whole HBR piece.

Stay Oriented!