Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Lessons in leadership

Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Lessons in leadership
Bryan Porter in his office at the Alexandria Courthouse. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

I would like to share some valuable lessons I have learned during my 27 years in law enforcement as a police officer, assistant prosecutor and elected Commonwealth’s Attorney. One month into my first term as the District Attorney, I caught what can only be described as a “once in a career case.” A serial killer, Charles Severance, angry over a custody dispute, began ambushing strangers by knocking on their front doors during daylight hours. Outstanding police work by Alexandria detectives led to an arrest, but the case was circumstantial. The media descended on my office. I was overwhelmed by the amount of scrutiny, stress and tension accompanying that case. Everyone seemed to expect I would instinctively know how to steer the matter to a successful conclusion, but I sincerely doubted whether I possessed the skill and acumen to do so. This article is not about that investigation. Instead, it is about the leadership lessons I learned from the experience. Given the number of lessons I personally learned, my observations on leadership will be divided into a series of articles, with the first installment below.

Leadership is about making difficult decisions.

At the risk of simplifying the myriad challenges confronting those in leadership roles, a leader’s job could be distilled into one concept: making difficult decisions. Certainly, there are attendant expectations: A leader should arrive at his or her decisions by a thoughtful and dispassionate process and, once a decision has been made, should inspire others to implement the decision by explaining their vision. But the definition of leadership is an ability to consistently make difficult decisions in difficult circumstances.

Decisions must be reasoned and dispassionate.

People who are considered good leaders do not usually display impulsivity. Knee-jerk reactions and “flying off the handle” imply a lack of thoughtfulness and an inability to handle stressful situations. True leaders project a sense of calm and reason in the eye of adversity. Supervisees thrive when their leaders employ a decision-making process involving the inclusion of diverse ideas. A leader should inculcate a “team of rivals” approach in which he or she encourages their staff to express diverging views and should stress that all potential avenues for action will be considered in reaching a decision. When a decision is taken, the leader should explain the reasons for the decision to their team. Above all else, leaders should strive for consistency in their decision-making process. Supervisees desperately want a fair system of rewards and punishment, and they thrive in an environment in which their leaders make decisions without fear of consequences or favor to any person or faction.

You must have thick skin.

As a leader is promoted throughout their career, they obviously take on weightier responsibilities. As the gravity of decisions to be made grows in intensity, so does the number of people who may be unhappy with the decisions made. Supervisors who make decisions based on pleasing the greatest number of people will never be accepted as true leaders. A leader applies a thoughtful process, makes the best decision possible in light of the circumstances and understands the decision has likely displeased someone. Leadership requires making the best decision, owning it and being able to articulate one’s reasoning. Next month, I will look at some more practical lessons I have learned over the course of my career.

The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.