This is the third in a series of columns focused on lessons I have learned during my 27 years in law enforcement. Previous columns included the first six leadership lessons.
Lesson seven: Don’t use email for difficult conversations.
Who among us has not crafted an angry email and then hesitated with our finger hovering above the “send” button? An email, once sent, cannot be retrieved, and instead becomes an eternal record of your thoughts. On any number of occasions during my career, an email I sent has been misinterpreted by the recipient. Without the vocal signals inherent in a two-way conversation, context is lost in an email and the recipient may derive an entirely different message from that which was intended.
The impersonal nature of email can free the sender to be sharper with their comments than they would be in a personal conversation. It is more difficult to be angry, confrontational or snarky when sitting across the table from a living, breathing human being. The electronic distance inherent in email also may cause the recipient to feel the sender believed they did not merit the courtesy of an in-person meeting.
If circumstances require a difficult conversation, that discussion should be in person. Email may be used to schedule an in-person meeting for the conversation. Finally, patience sometimes obviates the need for the difficult conversation; in my experience, problems often work out on their own, and a day spent in reflection on how to respond to a difficulty may allow space for the difficulty to disappear altogether.
Lesson eight: Leaders look at the big picture.
Human beings are instinctively self-centered. While altruism may occasionally arise in unexpected places, most people act in ways they believe will benefit them personally. Leaders are expected to set aside these self-serving instincts and make decisions which benefit their organizations. This requires the ability to figuratively take a step back and ponder the future implications of various courses of action.
When preparing for a murder trial, I intentionally employ this big picture process. I try to think about how each witness will be perceived by the court and what kinds of arguments might resonate with a jury. I attempt to build redundant systems into my trial plan, so if one method of getting a piece of evidence admitted is fruitless, I have a backup. In the realm of office administration, I try to consider how my decisions may affect my employees or those of other allied city agencies. I always attempt to work out unintended consequences which may flow from the various actions under consideration.
When making a policy or personnel decision, an organizational leader must cogitate on the big picture. A mental checklist is useful: How would this policy affect my unit? My bureau? Our department? But the big picture requires the leader to consider external effects as well: How would the decision affect other people in the business or public agency? Would it impact the general public? If so, in what ways?
If there’s time, leaders should strive to consider the potential fallout from their decisions. They should also communicate with others who may be affected by the decision and seek their input. This tactic has the obvious benefit of making it more likely that the big picture is truly being seen. Since humans are naturally resistant to change, seeking input from those who may be affected by a policy change gives them a stake in the change and usually reduces their resistance.
Next month, I will provide the final two lessons of my top ten lessons in leadership and give some concluding thoughts.
The writer is commonwealth’s attorney for Alexandria.