Adaptability on the Frontline…and “Bottom-Up” Leadership | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

I was motivated to write this post by an article I recently read that was written back in 1999 by USMC GEN Charles C. Krulak titled; The Strategic Corporal Leadership in the Three Block War which is about decisions being made at the lowest level with in an organization if we truly want to seize the initiative dealing with changing conditions. In  GEN Krulak’s articles focus is on the military and  the United States Marine Corps . I see it applying to the law enforcement and security professions as well as any other organization where time critical decisions are needed to be successful. This is my attempt to show how it applies in our mission in protecting the homeland.

Its a Friday night and the call goes out…respond to a at a particular location (single family dwelling house) for an 18 year old male threatening suicide with a gun. The dispatcher states’; I received the call from the mother of the subject who says her son does indeed have a gun and is emotionally distraught over the break up with his girlfriend. The sector car a single officer unit and a back-up car a two-man unit are sent to resolve the situation.

Your shift supervisor and lieutenant are in a staff meeting and you were told not to disturb them; as the meeting was to discuss budgetary issues and the possibility of cut backs and possible layoffs.

You arrive at the location and back-up unit pulls up directly behind you. The house is located on a busy road, the home is set back 100 yards on a few acres of wooded land, the house is quiet and there is a vehicle parked in the driveway. You have dispatch run the tag.

You quickly get out of your patrol car and start to walk towards the front door, but are called back by the back-up officers who remind you this is an emotionally upset and armed person. You then all discuss a plan of action that’s focus is on getting the person to come to us. You voice your concern, of the mother whom you believe is inside and we need to go in. Back-up officers remind you no violence has occurred as of yet and that forcing the situation could create more of a problem including the escalation of violence and remind you that negotiation in these types of circumstances is the best option and very successful. You agree and then position yourselves on opposite corners of the house utilizing cover in an effort to contain and gather more information about the situation.

You get the phone number to the house and place a call to the house. The 18 year old man tells you he has lost his girlfriend and life is not worth living. As you continue to talk with the young man, back-up officers are notifying additional resources such as; medical and a response team. 

Your conversation continues and you are told by the young man his mother is not home and at a friends house a couple towns away. You have dispatch confirm this and it is verified that his mother is not inside and is responding to the scene, according to the friend she just left and is 10 minutes away. You tell dispatch to get hold of mother via her cell and have her not come home and instead go to the station. Your informed she agrees to do so.

You continue your conversation with  the young man and talk him back to reality by sharing a story of your past relationships when you were his young age (tactical communication).  After five minutes on the phone conversing, the young man says he will put the gun down and come out. You tell him to wait your instructions and he agrees. You then notify your back-up he has agreed to come out and that you will be directing him out the front door and that he is leaving the gun on the table inside. You reconnect with the young man and tell him to follow your directions exactly and he agrees.  He comes out the door as directed and complies. he is taken into custody and transported to the hospital where he is to be evaluated.   From call to conclusion is only about 8 minutes. A successful resolution to a potentially deadly situation.

This scenario is similar to many that have been conducted in the real world of policing and security in recent years and represents the likely types of unknown and high risk situations law enforcement responds to. It also represents, the enormous responsibilities and pressures which are placed on our young informal leaders (cops and security officers on the street) .  

The real life scenario described above “Tactical Response and Approach to Suicidal Person” is fictional in the sense of my description of how it was handled based on after action review of the situation and lessons learned.

In reality the officer walked to the front door and knocked on it while two back-up officers watched and made no effort to correct the potential dangerous tactics. It was resolved safely based on luck, not skill. Numerous cops have been injured or killed responding in a similar fashion. Why did you not offer tactical advise to a fellow officer clearly putting himself in danger?

When asked why the responses were numerous i.e. we are not his boss, its not our job to tell another patrol officer what to do, we did not want to interfere, he is a cop he should know what to do, where were his bosses? It turned out fine didn’t it?

At first reading these responses you might think these are cops who do not care about their jobs! I wish that was the case the problem would be easy to fix! These cops all of them are very good cops. I know them all and know their work. But they are wrapped up in the culture of the profession, which is based on a negative form of leadership, a mechanistic, directive in nature, top down autocratic approach also known as, micro-management.  This style of leadership breeds the individual perception, do not interfere with a brother or sister officers methods of operation. Its his call, his responsibility and he and he alone is responsible for his actions. And dare I say the political correctness of not making waves even if its good or life saving advise! NONESENSE! We are all accountable for each others safety… Hell that’s the meaning of BACK-UP!   Let me digress…

This attitude stems from a negative organizational culture which gives the perception to frontline personnel; “do nothing until you have permission to do so or do not get involved unless its your call or are assigned to do so.” No thinking, no communication, no adaptation. This is a failure in leadership creating and nurturing a cohesive environment and when leadership fails bad things happen. A lot of times we get lucky but when luck runs out the equation usually involves serious consequences.

The orientation formed in this real life example (fictional option of response) based on the lessons learned in an after action review, was a group of three acting as one, sharing thoughts and ideas and adapting to the situation . That’s what brought a safe resolution, three separate assessments, channeled into one and good decisions made because of it.  This is the type of organizational culture we want to strive for.

A Change in Culture…From Top down to Bottom up!

There can be no true problem solving without decentralization of control and individual initiative.

To change from a culture of “tell me what to do to one that breeds and nurtures creativity, innovation, adaptation and time critical decision making,” we must move, really move from centralized control to a decentralized form of leadership. We have been talking about decentralized control in policing for years now, since the onset of “community policing” initiatives. True! But that’s the problem we have been “talking about it.” We need to be practicing it. Get beyond the talk and walking the talk if we truly want to see results that meet the challenges we face in policing. Yes there have been some organizations in law enforcement who have taken this approach seriously and the results they have achieved show clearly the value of frontline decision making and that we all need to be practicing what we preach!   The action taken by leadership needs to be more than written mission statements and words, it takes action! Action over time through learning, education and training. Not just in the formal sense but in the real world sense of learning from everything we do at all levels of the organization and throughout the community on a daily bases.

This takes a mindset shift as to how we lead or as John Boyd talked about in his discourse on winning and losing, destruction and creation. Destroy our old ways of thinking about leadership which is based on Taylorism (manufacturing model of getting things done) and deterministic outcomes.  This method works when time is plenty and risk is low.  The world we live in is often probabilistic, complex, uncertain and things happen unexpectedly, risk is high and time is critical in the dynamic encounters law enforcement responds to. These types of situations require adaptability on the frontline and hence “Adaptive Leaders” as the modern strategist Don Vandergriff  would say. 

Frontline Personnel the Key to Solving Conventional and Unconventional Problems and Threats

Cops, patrol officers on the street work individually or in small groups making decisions and solving problems daily with little or no supervision. These are the folks who solve the problems. These are the folks there in the moment, when bad things are happening and a solution is needed. They must know they are free and empowered to make decisions. Supervisors are not always right there, they are often assigned to another seemingly more serious call or some specialized duties that takes them away from their primary responsibilities of overseeing things as they happens on a tour of duty, this is even more the case in small to midsized organizations.

A leader is accountable for actions of frontline personnel whether they are on scene or not, so it is imperative that leaders train and prepare those on the frontline. Leadership accountability comes from our preparation and the continued education, learning and developing of frontline decision makers.  NOT from standing over them directing them, or written policy and procedures, or checklists on how to perform in a given set of circumstances. A leader does not have to be on every call, it is impossible to be on every call. It is just not necessary if you prepare your frontline people effectively and development is an ongoing process.  Train and Trust FRONTLINE Personnel! They will get it done and done right!

Leaderships role is to develop individuals who understand and practice integrity, courage, initiative, decisiveness, mental agility and personal accountability. These fundamental qualities must be aggressively cultivated which in turn allows for an atmosphere of adaptability at the lowest level, on the street. “I am here now in the situation, that requires a decision…”  ‘I AM EMPOWERED, SUPERENPOWERED TO DECIDE and ACT!’ Frontline personnel must know this is what leadership wants and leadership must support it!

Don Vandergriff in his book “Raising the Bar Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing face of War” describes “adaptability” as; “the process of adjusting practices, processes, and systems to projected actual changes of environment, e.g. the situation or the enemy. it also includes the creation of innovative organizations, doctrine, systems and training concepts as demanded by the environment, allies and the enemy. And finally someone who is adaptive can think of solutions to problems in chaotic, unpredictable situations that are based more on intuition than on analysis, deliberate planning and doctrine.”  

Adaptability comes from training in all the dimensions of conflict mental, moral and physical, decentralized control with strict individual, organizational and community accountability.  This involves life long learning of all involved and takes more effort than what the culture of policing requires now out of its leaders and frontline personnel. This requires the same out of the community as well. All working together, truly working together “”walking the talk” of progress and innovation if solving our problems and dealing with threats is truly the goal. Yes it rocks the boat and takes us out of our comfort zones, but the results of giving power to the frontline to make decisions leads to insight, imagination and initiative. Action depends on understanding this. You will be pleasantly surprised by the results achieved.  

“We love the term ‘adaptive leaders’ and ‘innovation’ as long as they do not rock anybody’s boat. ~Franklin C. Spinney

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