Climbing (and falling from) the greasy pole…

How do we measure a good leader?

This must have been debated at every level of the service at length. I have been party to some interesting conversation on garage forecourts at 4am around who has been promoted and who hasn’t, as many cops probably have. Everyone has an opinion, but the consensus often falls onto a ‘good/bad’ footing at some point. The promotion system is often discussed in a very derogatory way by officers at the sharp end. Many have little faith in it and will almost always state that it is one of the reasons they will never try for a leadership position.

So what do good and bad look like? What does a competent leader look like? Well this is a tough question and one that is very open to subjectivity. There are some really contemporary thoughts on this in current literature, looking at concepts like ‘Stewardship’ and ‘Followership,’ with older theories espousing various forms of Heroic Leadership and grip/control. Theory aside, many will state, ‘I know a leader when I see one,’ and perhaps this is the best way to define it, as a good leader is often defined by how those they are leading see them. This -of course- means that there will be many different kinds of leaders in many different walks of life.

The below is a very quick image from Kotter (who is a pretty well known guy in mgmt theory).

IMG_0105

It may not be a surprise to think that most of the supervision that cops experience fall on the Mgmt side. There are other graphics that exchange the words ‘Mgmt.’ for ‘Boss.’ Either way, if you think that the biggest influence on Police Leadership has been New Public ‘Management‘ for the last 15-20 years, it stands to reason that Mgmt. as a leadership style has won out. This does not mean that there are not charismatic managers and managers that inspire and support their staff. I know of several who do and are excellent from an anecdotal perspective. It does however indicate that a strong weighting may be present due to the 30 year police employment tenure. If all you have known is Mgmt., and all the bosses want from prospective leaders is to display ‘strong’ Mgmt., then all you will end up with is more managers. This presents an interesting conundrum, and one that I discussed in my last blog around a reactive policing style favouring a command style of leadership. Does a heavy Mgmt. structure favour only managers? What if you are a great leader? You certainly represent more risk than usual.

This can be referred to as Prototype Leadership, or a situation within an organisation where those higher in the hierarchy will select those that they feel most affinity with. In short, bosses will promote bosses who look and act like them. This ensures safety, consistency of delivery, and absolutely no rocking of the proverbial boat. It is by no means particular to policing and happens in many careers on a regular basis.

Now where people stumble, is that criticism of such a process often relies on an assumption that the bosses do this consciously. ‘They only choose people that are like them.’ Although this may actually be true in terms of outcome, in that self-selection does occur, it is often completely unconscious and very difficult to ‘self check.’ Those funny generalisations start to come out to explain it when discussing promotion, like, ‘I think they are ready,’ or ‘I feel safe with him/her in charge.’ It is those generalisations that begin to hint at unconscious bias, and not being aware of it can be hazardous to the future of the organisation, because self selection drastically limits the propensity to change…

I don’t want to drag this part of the conversation out, but research of candidates during promotion processes showed that those candidates who displayed creativity in problem solving were AUTOMATICALLY thought of by selectors as having less leadership potential. What is happening here? The selectors are selecting ‘safe.’ What are the long term implications of this? Well, unless this particular unconscious bias is addressed, creativity is filtered out of candidates or the creative candidates are filtered out themselves.

What are the implications for the future of any organisation who has large amounts of prototype leadership? If you were in private industry the market would overtake the business and it would die. In the public sector? Stability and consistency, whilst the world accelerates on passed it. It could be said that attempts to address the changing profile of crime (i.e. huge increase in use of technology) have fallen victim to ‘safe hands’ management, augmented by archaic procurement bureaucracy and an unwillingness to utilise external skills. This is however complete speculation…

How do we address this problem? It’s unconscious, it results in stability, it’s consistent for the public… Should we change it? Is it a bad thing for a public service? The answer again lies in diversity. The same research as discussed above, showed that activating the ‘Creative Leader’ prototype addressed the problem. This basically means saying, ‘Hey, selector people, creative candidates can make really good leaders, can we have some of them too?’ This means that the current Leaders asking for creative candidates from selectors may actually result in a large shift in the kind of leaders selected.

It’s kind of like giving permission or empowering selectors to look for difference in candidates…

This is where the benefits start to kick in, balancing risk taking leaders who inspire, with managers who help keep them grounded and ensure that checks and balances are in place, sounds like a good combination for the public doesn’t it? So change is there, but it isn’t too crazy…

Putting people in the boardroom who aren’t always ‘safe’ is a good way to grow, not just in the organisation, but personally too. Difference in our leader profiles is therefore necessary for healthy challenge and change. All that is left then, is to organise/develop a system of selection that allows flexibility, where individuals are selected for role, and not for rank. This in turn, may make that pole a little – just a little – less greasy.

That however, is a whole new blog.

The cultural rabbit hole…

As part of my current role I had the opportunity to look into the cultural challenges that may face the cops in the coming years. I won’t lie, it was immersive and fascinating stuff, and if you work in the police and have access to academia, a quick search and you will be off down the rabbit hole.

And a rabbit hole it is. Some of the things that I read made my stomach turn, not least because it was so insightful that I had experienced half of them myself. The worst thing was, it was probably the first authentic experience of reading and finally understanding a really good analysis of cop behaviour by an ‘outsider’…

You know all those little behaviours cops do every day that are normal? Well, they aren’t normal.

There are a number of themes around the behaviours that pop up again and again, these mainly being:

Hierarchical – power and decision making/control originates from the top – lower levels provide the function, info passes down but not often up – people connect with the levels they are closest to and often distrust those furthest away.

Insular – cops retreat into their teams and create close bubbles – inherent suspicion of outsiders and a protected feeling of the job being completely unique – struggle to integrate with other agencies properly, – through entrenchment, opinions become completely different to those outside the profession – institutionalised cynicism.

Command centric Ritualistic status in policing – Heroic Leadership revered – command applied to all situations instead of appropriately when needed – problems solved in the ‘now’ rather than where they begin to originate – disempowers lower ranks but makes life easier for them – incompatible with culture of challenge/candour.

Reactive – significant status attached to a good thieftaker – catching bad guys, carrying tech/weapons also seen as higher status – use of force and ability to fight also seen as higher status – low status attached to soft skills/problem solving/collaborative practice/emotional intelligence.

Culture of numbers – heavy reliance on numerical data – low weighing on evaluation of qualitative information – success/failure culture, large area of grey often ignored – utilise very simple outlooks upon complex problems.

Mgmt Culture/Street culture – Large separation between what is discussed in meetings and what happens on the streets – cops think mgmt don’t understand their job and vice versa – often difference in method between command centric lower ranks and slower burning problem solving upper ranks.

Now all these facets are pretty ingrained. It was amazing how similar some of the problems encountered in 1970’s America have hardly changed over time, and persist in a slightly altered state. Some would say, ‘Well, that’s common sense, we do almost the same job, but a few years on.’ That’s true actually, we aren’t far off doing the same job, but think about that for a second… The reactive status of policing, the insular nature of the teams, and suspicion and cynical nature of the staff has tempered slightly, but it’s still there. The Gene Hunt characters immortalised by Life on Mars enjoy popular acclaim even now as people discuss the ‘Golden Age’ of policing in fond terms, before the bureaucratic ‘evil’ of PACE hitting the profession in 1984.

So what do these cultural facets mean? They mean lots. You will read many commentators discussing the fact that the Police are the last unreformed public service. Reform for what? Reform how? What’s so bad about the cops now, that needs to change? I talk about this stuff a lot, because although it is aspirational to be future facing, how long is that journey ahead? We may know where we want to go, but how far away is it? More importantly, plotting way markers in any period of change is difficult if you don’t even know where you are starting.

I think the truth is that there is no ‘crisis’ in leadership. It’s a word that’s misapplied, and funnily enough it is turning one of the worst facets of cop culture on its head, and throwing it straight back at them.

The reactive/command centric/hierarchical nature of the culture means that there is a tendency to apply command behaviours and leadership, to problems that require anything but. Everything is treated like a crisis and action needs to happen now, and we need to address immediate safeguarding, and we need to make an arrest, and we need to gather the evidence, and we need…

And the list goes on. The supervision apply the basic command led process and ensure that ‘minimum standards’ are met, and if there’s risk, the cavalry comes out. But they come out for the ‘then.’ They come out when the incident rears its head, when it all gets too much. When the tipping point has come and the parties involve reach a point of no return and contact the police. And then, well it’s a crisis isn’t it, and command leadership sits well with crisis. It’s how the police get through them. Pats on the back ensue now everyone is immediately safe, and we’ve done a fantastic job etc. but what happens next?

Well this is where the culture balks. Prevention needed soft skills and community awareness, it needed boots on the ground listening to people and hearing the neighbours and friends. It needed multi agency information sharing and slow-burning problem solving that may be time intensive. And do you know what is the worst thing about all this? You can’t measure what doesn’t happen. You can’t measure the quality of relationships between the police and the community, and you can’t measure the differences that the police are making to other people’s lives. You can’t measure the person that leaves their violent partner before they get murdered, and you can’t measure that smile that you put on child’s face when they needed it most.

So what happens when the purse strings tighten? Well the reactive side remains, because it’s what we do. The culture has to maintain the reactive side and protect it like a hallowed ground of infallibility. We have to ‘keep people safe.’ But there’s the rub, when the emergency calls come in, you probably have around 30 minutes to utilise command based behaviour and resolve the there and then. You safeguard the victim for the there and then and probably never see them again. What happens afterwards, and for the next victim who is waiting?

Command based behaviour is the bit that the culture likes and supports. It is 100% necessary and a vital part of policing. It’s also the part that is needed when the wheel comes off. We do however spend the vast majority of our time with the wheel on, wobbly maybe, but still in place. It is the activity during the time of ‘wheel on,’ that prevents ‘wheel off’, but it doesn’t carry the cultural capital of a good ‘thief-taker.’ You know those cups of tea and ‘feet up’ home visits of victims, that is where the smart money lies, because it makes less victims in the future. It changes lives and pulls in other vital services to offer much needed support. It is the time in the run up to crisis, that prevents crisis.

The smart money goes into prevention, because that means less victims.

So where does the cultural rabbit hole lead? Well, the cops still retain a function of command, so it must stay. But what about the other bits? A leader good at command holds good status thanks to our culture, but they use that skill appropriately sparingly. When they start applying command behaviours to far more complex (wicked) problems, all sorts of perverse outcomes begin to rear their head. It stand to reason therefore, that commanders need to be in roles where they use command a lot. What about the other roles? Well here’s a conundrum, because the other styles of leadership don’t quite gel with the culture. The collective leader, the distributive leader, the transformational leader, the participative leader… I could go on. The culture doesn’t quite like them as much, they don’t hold the same status and times can be tough, especially when reactive policing is slowly becoming the only ‘safe’ place left. As the preventative funding drops away and troops are reallocated to frontline policing, where command culture is at its strongest, how does that bode well for the future of a diverse leadership?

It may just be the case that austerity keeps the leaders best suited to a complex future culture, away from positions of leadership.

I’m not sure I like this rabbit hole…