Positive Multi-Directional Leadership: Ascending, Descending and Horizontal Emotional Support
By Joshua Browne, M.P.S.
The Vital Role of Law Enforcement Professionals
Law enforcement professionals perform a vital, but unique role in a free society. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (2004) postulated the rapid deterioration and subsequent annihilation of a free society, almost immediately following the removal of police officers, who regulate its delicate balance between individual liberty and safety. Western society demands consistent, valiant and ethical performance from its police forces. Police officers are among a small group of professionals, expected to suppress typical human emotional reactions to traumatic, stressful and life threatening circumstances. Thus, when the public withdrawals from corrosive, dangerous and emotionally traumatizing events, it expects its police officers to confront such incidents with a measured and professional demeanor, as retreat is not an option. Unfortunately, even brave law enforcement officers experience human emotion, sometimes incurring direct and/or secondary trauma (Tovar, 2011).
The Negative Effects of Hypervigilance
The negative effects on individual officers and families as a result of such bombardment, including strategies for overcoming these emotional burdens, are well documented by emotional survival experts Dr. Kevin Gilmartin (2002) and Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (2004), as well as significant social science, psychological and physiological literature. Emotional burdens inflicted as a result of such trauma, as well as the biological imbalances caused by the hypervigilance experienced by officers, must continue to be addressed at the individual level. Equally important for law enforcement organizations, is the cumulative effect of such corrosive forces on organizational culture and performance. Absent direct acknowledgement and focused strategies designed to attack such corrupting phenomena, organizations can venture into a perpetual state of internally inflicted emotional injury, magnifying the emotional trauma emanating from outside forces.
Psychological, Physiological and Emotional Encouragement
Rather than providing psychological, physiological and emotional encouragement, leaders can sometimes ignore individual emotional needs, as their demand for operational results clouds their judgment. Even more alarming, the existence of far too many law enforcement leaders embracing a Machiavellian style (Rosen, Chang, & Levy, 2008), resulting in deliberate actions inflicting significant and unnecessary emotional stress on subordinates, remains a component of many modern law enforcement organizations. Law enforcement professionals recognize these leaders as the micromanaging and heavy handed supervisor, indifferent to the needs of their subordinates. Even worse, some of these supervisors consistently behave in deliberate despicable ways, utilizing tactics designed to demean and instill perpetual fear in their subordinates. Such an orientation can impede the ongoing effort to ensure “good officers remain good (Gilmartin, 2002),” simultaneously inflicting debilitating impediments toward officer retention.
Positive Leadership and the Heliotropic Effect
While the solutions to the comprehensive emotional well-being of department employees are multifaceted, I suggest a substantial aspect of achieving such a goal can be influenced by the emotional orientation of organizational leaders. Social science research continues to explore, identify and pursue the effects of positive leadership on individual and organizational performance. The heliotropic effect explains the tendency of all living systems, from bacteria to mammals, to retreat from negative energy and flex towards positive energy. This phenomenon can be observed as plants orientate towards light and humans gravitate towards positive learning, subsequently internalizing positive lessons substantially more rapidly when compared to negative information (Cameron, 2008; Matlin & Stang, 1978). Similarly, humans, including police officers, thrive in encouraging environments, seeking to embrace positive energy, while recoiling from negative influences. Such an alignment with encouragement and positive reinforcing energy will increase employee emotional well being, job satisfaction, performance and retention.
Leaders as Organizational Culture Catalysts
Organizational culture expert Edgar Schein (2010) contends culture within an organization is at the mercy of top leadership, since such individuals possess the formal authority to orchestrate and administer, or at least endorse the systems of retribution and reward molding employee behavior. This is achieved as informal and formal systems teach employees which behaviors are rewarded and punished. If top organizational leaders drive organizational culture, how do lower level leaders and employees alter an organizational culture opposed to positive and encouraging leadership styles? Unfortunately, many of us, me included, have previously resorted to throwing our hands in the air and surrendering, reasoning that since we are not the organizational head, there is nothing to be done! We concede failure!
Thus, we deflect accountability, absolving ourselves of the responsibility to act. In effect, we abdicate our ability to embrace optimism, reject a growth mindset and sentence ourselves to wallow in the status quo, further ingraining the negative organizational culture we detest. First responders are natural innovative problem solvers by trade. We rush into danger, confront evil and peril in corrosive environments, all while maintaining absolute confidence and resolve, often times with a smile. Such a unique, talented and skilled individual can surely learn to lead in multiple directions simultaneously.
Leading up the Chain
In their number one bestselling book, retired U.S. Navy Seals Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (2015) explained the concept of “leading up the chain.” Willink and Babin (2015) described their frustration with the upper chain of command and their apparent disconnect from the realities their troops faced as they reclaimed Ramadi, Iraq. Incidentally, Chris Kyle, known as “The American Sniper,” served under their command, as they faced the dangerous and arduous task of rooting out the terrorists occupying the city, building by building and block by block. Willink and Babin (2015) chronicled their decision to assume what they termed, “extreme ownership” of their responsibility to ensure they led up the chain. Essentially, they assumed full responsibility to ensure their superiors comprehended the obstacles they faced, their operational needs and the rationale behind their strategic and tactical decisions. If their superiors failed to comprehend their operational needs, they owned this confusion as their fault.
Altering Organizational Culture Via Multi-Directional Leadership
This notion convicted me. I was guilty as charged. As I studied leadership at The George Washington University, reviewing countless leadership and organizational culture texts and scholarly articles, I composed numerous essays, repeatedly echoing the consensus regarding the need for top organizational executives to communicate a positive, clearly defined vision, complete with the endorsement of an organizational culture reinforcing these objectives. I sang with the choir of academics and leadership gurus placing the onus for the success or failure of an organization squarely at the top. While the ultimate responsibility for organizational success may in fact reside at the top, this does not absolve first line or middle leaders from their responsibility to care for the emotional needs of their subordinates, by seeking to alter organizational culture conflicting with an emotionally encouraging orientation.
I suggest the crusade necessary to successfully alter an organizational culture in opposition to positive and encouraging leadership notions, requires deployment in multiple directions. As a first line supervisor, I own the ultimate responsibility to care for the overall well-being of the officers under my command. When my own formal and informal authority is insufficient to accomplish this goal and organizational cultural impediments are present, it is my obligation to lead both vertically and horizontally, in order to properly wield influence tactics designed to invite my peers, as well as my superiors, to consider a new cultural path capable of caring for the intrinsic needs of employees. I cannot concede defeat. If my subordinates, peers, and superiors lack the internal character, understanding or knowledge necessary for the alteration of corrosive legacy culture into one orientating towards positive energy, I must lead them. If not me, then who? I invite leaders at all levels to join me in embracing the challenge to lead in multiple directions. It is our stewardship to care for our own.
Sgt. Joshua Browne, M.P.S. is a police sergeant, adjunct professor within The George Washington University’s Master of Homeland Security Program, and founder of Heal the Badge Consulting. He authors articles and provides training courses in the realms of emotional resilience and altering organizational culture towards wellness. His efforts seek to realize the goal of fortifying law enforcement professionals, leaders and their families, by providing the necessary resilience tools for success within, outside and beyond the law enforcement career. He also utilizes his law enforcement and academic experience, to lead individuals outside of the first responder community, towards reconciling their traumatic experiences and realizing the meaning and growth embedded therein.
Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and their Families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.
Grossman, D. (2004). On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. Belleville, IL: PPTC Research.
Rosen, C. C., Chang, C., & Levy, P. E. (2008). Personality and Politics Perceptions: A New conceptualization and illustration using OCBs. In E. Vigoda-Gadot, & A. Drory (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational Politics (pp. 29-52). Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
Schein, E. H. (2010). What Leaders Need to Know About How Culture Changes. In Organizational Culture and Leadership (4th ed., pp. 273-296). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Tovar, L. A. (2011, July). Vicarious Traumatization and Spirituality in Law Enforcement. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 16-21.
Willink, J., & Babin, L. (2015). Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.