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Qualities of Police Leadership:
A Snapshot on Leading Generation X


Author: Inspector Gord Schumacher L.L.B., Winnipeg Police Service, February 2003

"My name's Friday, the story you are about to see is true."

Most police leaders at the senior and executive levels will remember that phrase recited near daily by Sgt. Jack Webb from the 1950's police show "Dragnet." This show was at the time revered as being as close to the real thing as you could get on television, and may have influenced some of us to become police officers in the first place.

Watching Sgt. Webb and his partner officer Frank Smith meticulously wade through complicated facts ("just the facts ma'am"), to inevitably capture the bad guy, all the time showing the world how respectfully professional, careful and committed they could be, created an idealist atmosphere of admiration and respect.

Fast forward to the new millennium. Baby Boomers are now in charge with generation X (those born between 1965-1985) making up the majority of the police service complement. Do we still have individuals like Sgt. Webb and Officer Smith who value duty before pleasure, respect for authority and adherence to rules? Maybe, but for the most part the X er's have a different agenda, one that seemingly places them before the organization. Commitment and loyalty, though still acknowledged, are defined differently to include terms like: balance, informality and self-reliance.

While at first glace, police leaders might balk at what they see as the new wave police officer, acknowledging the wave will be easier and more productive then fighting it. How many times have we heard: "police officers aren't what they used to be?" while that may be true in a historical sense, what they are, isn't inconsistent with good police work. Values and ethics may be slightly different but the enthusiasm to do the right thing remains. Management of this ubiquitous group will be the single most important aspect in the development of an effective, efficient and stable workforce.

So, how do we lead and manage the generation X police officer? Efficiencies, productivity, budget restraints, morale, and manpower shortages all have adverse impacts on how we deal with this body of people who make demands on management in the never ending attempt to influence their workplace.

Motivation is a key ingredient, the ability to motivate through instilling positive morale and excitement for assignments. Morale at its foundation begins with feelings of self-worth and fulfillment. Generation X police officers need to feel that their views are seriously considered and that they as individuals mean something to the organization. Police leaders must be transparent and can't be subversive in how they approach their members; they must be able to clearly explain ideas and the thinking behind them from an organizational perspective. Absolute management behind closed doors can create an atmosphere of mistrust and discontent and, no surprise, is not conducive to harmonious leadership. Police leaders need to realize that though many decisions from an operational perspective must be made in private; others can be shared and discussed. Openness in how the organization is being run will demonstrate that leaders really do care how the team and its individuals think. The generation X police officer wants to be informed. Gone are the days of blind obedience. The softer, gentler approach will build an understanding that police work in the new millennium is truly a team approach.

Arguably, the most important trait of a good leader is honesty - fostering relationships and respect. Think of the family ideal; two way honesty and open lines of communication between parents and children will develop and maintain an atmosphere of trust, respect and commitment. The children grow up unafraid of trying new things for fear of failure. Self-esteem and confidence are set as the building blocks for their future. Honesty in the police management/leadership context can net the same results. Trust, respect and commitment are all developed through the knowledge that leaders at the top of the organization understand those within the hierarchy. Don't be afraid that feelings might get hurt; at times honesty will be discouraging and create disappointment or discomfort. The generation X police officer thrives on being told the truth and will descend into an us and them mentality when they feel honesty is being cloaked behind an ulterior motive. In the end, though at times painful, constructive honesty will create positive morale and respect that will flow throughout the entire organization.

Generation X is watching. As a police leader, every move you make is being observed and emulated. Lead by example. If you are honest and open, your subordinates will see the benefits. Looking in the mirror is a good gauge to measure your success in developing potential leaders. The reflection you see is the future of your organization. Constantly and consistently project professionalism and ethical performance as the template of standardization. The generation X police officer respects your position; your job is to project a leader that will be respected as an individual - with that comes success.

Remember that every generation has the same proportion of intelligence, ambition and desire, and it is a mistake to think that it is always the subordinate who needs to change behavior.

Motivation, honesty, trustworthiness, transparency and leading by example are all core pillars of leadership that will provide the building blocks of a strong, stable workforce. These qualities however cannot breed success in isolation; they must be nurtured with the knowledge that generation X police officers are different. Not recognizing or valuing the ways they differ means failing as a leader. Success will be defined by the ability to adopt the pillars of leadership and the desire to channel different approaches into meaningful results.

Sgt. Webb and Officer Smith are still out there. Their mannerisms are different, their hair a little longer but with proper encouragement, their desire and enthusiasm will be as strong as ever.

Don't get too comfortable; the Millennium kids aren't that far away.