This is the second in a series of columns focused on lessons I have learned during my 27 years in law enforcement. The first three lessons were included in last month’s edition.
Lesson four: Leadership is a skill.
Leadership ability is not an attribute that people either possess or lack. Instead, it is a skill – or better yet, an interconnected set of skills – which successful leaders are constantly honing. Granted, some people are innately gifted in ways that serve them well in a leadership role. However, everyone can improve their leadership ability by emulating other successful leaders, attending leadership training classes or simply increasing their level of leadership experience. Like any other skill, becoming an accomplished leader requires work.
Lesson five: Leaders excel at social intelligence.
The quality known as social intelligence is hard to define, but rough synonyms would be “tact” or “street smarts.” One of the most challenging aspects of leadership is dealing with the people one supervises on their terms, respecting their idiosyncrasies and individual personalities. A socially intelligent leader displays a host of important traits, the most important of these being an understanding of the motivations of other people, outstanding listening skills, conversational capability and the ability to see the other side of an issue.
In my second month as the elected Commonwealth’s Attorney, I had to have a difficult conversation with an employee. I brought her into my office and was very direct with her. My voice began to rise as I expressed my displeasure at her performance.
I could quickly tell that my approach was completely wrong: The employee quickly became visibly distressed and soon asked to leave the room. She later told me that she had trouble sleeping because of the way I had “yelled” at her and was fearful that I would always hold the situation against her.
In this interaction, I showed a lack of social intelligence because I did not consider the way in which the employee might react to the conversation. I still consider this vignette a sterling example of a learning experience, and I have tried to not repeat the same mistakes in subsequent conversations. Like every human skill, social intelligence can be gained through trial and error.
Lesson six: People matter.
Here is an easy question. How quickly do you return voicemail messages? As soon as you receive them? Within 24 hours? Never? The easiest way to signal to someone they do not matter to you is to simply ignore them. A leader strives to inculcate a culture in which the people who comprise their organization really matter. This culture may take many forms: a small but important one is expeditiously responding to emails and voice messages.
I remember applying to police departments as a young man. Once my application was in, I received a form letter that said in so many words: “We received your application, now don’t ever call us. We’ll call you if we need to.” The wait seemed interminable, and many agencies never contacted me again, even to tell me I had not been selected. I still remember the angst and unhappiness this caused.
While I don’t argue that applicants deserve daily updates, in a world where the job market is tight, it makes sense to provide them with updates about the general timeline of the hiring process. In addition to being the decent thing to do, this kind of personal attention may convince a qualified applicant to choose your agency over another contender.
The “people matter” mantra can also be applied to internal assignments. All agencies function more smoothly when they put the right people in the right jobs, and this approach brings the additional benefit of creating happy employees. While it is obviously impossible to put everyone in the position they desire, a system of making internal assignments that considers aptitude and allows employees a chance at advancement is desirable.
Next month I will finish up the series with a few additional lessons and some concluding thoughts.
The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.