I’ve been a police officer for 24 years. I’ve been a human being for 46.
I’ve seen and experienced plenty of brilliant leadership in that time. I’ve also seen and experienced the alternatives.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
I. It’s people stupid
Right there. That’s the whole ball game.
Leaders who don’t care about people aren’t leaders at all. They might be bad managers, but that’s really not the same thing.
People are precious and rare and extraordinary and brilliant and brave and creative and resourceful and kind. They are also thinking, breathing, feeling, bleeding, sometimes flawed souls who, every now and then, need a helping hand.
Great leaders understand these things. They understand people.
II. Every contact leaves a trace
Edmond Locard was a French Forensic Scientist, born in the 19th Century, who gave his name to a law that remains fundamental to the investigation of crime in the 21st Century.
Locard’s Principle states simply that ‘every contact leaves a trace’.
Every time two objects come into contact with one another, an exchange takes place – fingerprints found at house that’s been burgled; microscopic fragments of broken glass found on the clothes of the burglar.
It’s a principle that explains how many crimes get solved: traces left by the suspect at the scene; traces from that scene carried by the suspect.
But it seems to me that Locard’s Principle also applies to every kind of human interaction, whether between lifelong friends or passing strangers.
Every time two people come into contact with one another, an exchange takes place. Spoken or unspoken, for better or for worse. We smile or we scowl, we encourage or we ignore, we appreciate or we dismiss, we hold out a hand or we withdraw it, we are angry or we forgive, we bless or we curse, we give or we take, we love or we hate.
Great leaders understand not only that what they do is important – but that how they do it is equally so.
Because every contact leaves a trace.
III. Leadership is service
The first responsibility of a leader is to serve. Before anything else, to serve.
Colleagues and communities alike.
Leaders who put themselves first aren’t leaders at all.
My primary role as a leader is to enable you to do your job to the very best of your abilities. That means making things easier rather than harder for you, removing obstacles rather than putting them in your way, investing in your training and development and, on occasions, setting my own comfort and convenience to one side.
It can never be all about me.
If the pursuit of my own ambitions has become more important than the cause we all serve, then I have lost my way. If my promotion matters more than your progression, then I am in danger of losing myself.
As the ancient wisdom suggests,
‘Whoever wants to be great among you must become the servant of all…’
IV. Everything can’t be a priority
If everything is a priority, then nothing is.
Leaders have to decide what matters more.
Take policing as an example.
Every crime matters to every victim. Understandably so.
But not all crimes are equal. Some cause infinitely greater harm than others. And those are the ones that have to matter more.
Domestic Violence has to matter more than shoplifting.
Youth Violence and Knife Crime have to matter more than the theft of a bicycle.
Any crime that has a child or vulnerable person as its victim has to matter more than one that doesn’t.
Leaders need to be absolutely clear about what’s most important – particularly in a world of limited resources.
And they have to be consistent about it. We can’t be changing our minds on the basis of this morning’s headlines or the latest round of heckling from the stalls.
V. Two ears, one mouth
As a child, I was taught that we have two ears and one mouth – and that they are to be used in those proportions.
Great leaders are great listeners.
And they understand that there is a difference between listening and hearing – and between hearing and actually doing something about what’s been said.
VI. Leadership requires bravery
Having courage doesn’t mean that you never feel afraid. It means feeling afraid and doing the right thing anyway.
It is both physical and moral.
Great leaders stand for what is right, even if it comes at personal cost.
Great leaders stand against what is wrong, even if it comes at personal risk.
Great leaders have difficult conversations (with people, not about people).
And they do these things constructively and positively and professionally – because bravery and bullying have nothing whatsoever in common with one another.
VII. The difference between activity and progress
Being busy and making a difference are not the same thing.
I played a game in my younger days that involved placing my forehead on an upright broom handle and spinning round in rapid circles, before affording my friends the opportunity to have a good laugh at my attempts to walk in a straight line.
Plenty of movement. No progress whatsoever.
I know a lot of busy, dizzy people.
VIII. Leaders must be dealers in hope
Apparently, it was Napoleon who said that. I’m not sure he’d be my source of inspiration on too many things, but I’m with him on this one.
The more challenging the context, the greater the responsibility that leaders have to deal in hope – to tell the kinds of stories and to paint the kinds of pictures that get people up out of their seats and cause them to come, running.
It’s not the critic who counts.
IX. Leadership is about character
It was the American General, Norman Schwarzkopf, who said:
‘Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But, if you must be without one, be without the strategy.
Who I am matters. What I believe in and what I stand for matters.
Great leaders ask you to do as they say.
And as they do.
I’m indebted to a friend for pointing me towards a book about the All Blacks written by James Kerr. Called ‘Legacy’, it draws lessons on life and leadership from experience of the world’s greatest rugby team – perhaps the greatest team in any sport.
Amongst any number of compelling ideas in the book is the suggestion that, at the end of their time in the team, every All Black player has an obligation to pass their shirt on in a better condition than when they inherited it.
(There’s also the principle of ‘no dickheads’ in the team, but perhaps I’ll save that for another time.)
Great leaders provide the shoulders for others to stand on.
To adapt a quote from the journalist Walter Lippman:
‘The final test of a leader is that they leave behind them in others the conviction and the will to carry on.’