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Back to Archives | Back to April 2005 Contents 

Are You Practicing
Common Sense Leadership?

By William Cottringer, Ph.D., President, Puget Sound Security Inc., and Author of You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too, Bellevue, Washington

lvin Toffler was right a few decades ago in Future Shock. The Information Age is overloading us all-especially those who are at the top and in charge of an organization's mission, success, and welfare. Part of this overload is the leadership literature that is being distributed exponentially these days. To keep from falling behind in the leadership knowledge curve, you must read several books and articles each week. But who has time to stick with such a rigorous reading schedule, given all the other information to digest? Daily e-mail messages alone will keep leaders busy for hours.

The first rule of information simplification is to look for commonalities of what is being said-the true principles that have wide applicability. Great leadership authors such as Stephen Covey, Warren Bennis, Lou Tice, John Maxwell, Peter Drucker, Max De Pree, Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Jim Rohn, and James Fisher all proclaim the message of going from effectiveness to greatness.

The challenge for law enforcement leaders today is to bridge the gap between their present effectiveness and their potential greatness. Jim Rohn says, "Leadership is the challenge to be something more than average." Motivational guru Lou Tice has said that leaders must take advantage of the present opportunity of feeling disordered and uncomfortable from the overload to explode forward into their best work ahead.

The only strategy to do this is to become a psychological champion (or what John-Roger calls a "spiritual warrior") and the only way to do that is to return to sweating the small stuff that leaders have been prematurely advised to dismiss, and refocus on applying common sense wisdom. Put another way, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "A good leader can't get too far ahead of his followers." And you have to be a bit of a psychologist to effectively close the gap between what you know and what others need to know.

Is Common Sense Important?
Everyone has a strong opinion about the importance of common sense. Of course, everyone would claim to have common sense. But the reality is that common sense is something everyone can learn more of and practice it.

Most problems in law enforcement (or any other profession as far as that goes) come about by thinking and actions that lack common sense. If there is a single most important skill to teach law enforcement employees it is the successful application of common sense principles.

A critical but often neglected part of the law enforcement leadership role is to teach common sense to others. Successful law enforcement leaders have applied a good deal of common sense to get where they are and have an obligation to pass on the lessons they have learned. Common sense is probably the only way to deal with the present information overload that has stopped us in our tracks. And it is common sense that separates those who know from those who don't.

Is Common Sense Teachable?
Teaching common sense is not easy; many think it can't be done. The resisters just shrug their shoulders and dismiss the problem by saying, "Common sense isn't so common anymore." But common sense can be taught, and the best starting point for doing this is to get a clearer picture of exactly what it is. Besides that, excellent leadership requires challenging sacred cows and having positive expectations about being able to make bad things better.

Mark Twain hit a bull's-eye when he said, "Common sense is the simple knack of seeing something the way it really is and doing something the way it should be done." Another definition emphasizes the importance of the connection between actions and consequences. Common sense always represents the action that gets the best results, at the lowest cost and with the fewest side-effects-like preventing crime by being highly visible, mobile, and active in informal neighborhood discussions that measure the pulse, minimize surprises, and sometimes even uncover potential plots.

To a large extent, the development of common sense involves the process of judgment. Ironically good judgment is based on experience, while experience is often based on bad judgment. But, that is exactly why common sense can be taught. The lack of common sense is based on personal experience, just as the application of good common sense. It is learned, usually the hard way.

Law enforcement leader can teach others more common sense by doing the following twelve tactics.

Common Sense Tactic 1:
Reprogram Your Brain

Before leaders can be their best, they have to get rid of their worst. The problem -erroneous thinking-has to be deleted and replaced by the solution- critical thinking. Important social psychology and brain research indicates that there are several cognitive errors that get in the way of discovering and applying truth. The following are among the mental biases great leaders must be aware of:

  • The brain's convenient habit of reducing complex realities into artificial oversimplifications, most often into dualistic yes-no categories

  • Firsthand experience being overvalued against more compelling second hand evidence

  • The strong preference for concrete, tangible things over the abstract, metaphorical meanings, despite usage and value

  • Single personal experiences being translated into universal fiats

  • Basing conclusions on little evidence and refusing to consider
    proof to the contrary

  • The memory's inability to recall things completely or accurately

  • The inability to slow down and judge our thinking against a reliable and dependable standard

  • Ascribing internal motivations to explain other's behavior and assuming external causes for our own

  • Making inaccurate connections between unrelated things that happen at nearly the same time and in the same place

  • Defining a thing in such a way that the definition influences how much of the thing we have or don't have

  • Not realizing that what we see depends mostly on where we are doing the looking from

Common Sense Tactic 2:
Stockpile Common Sense

Leaders can teach most of what they know to others by being a role model and demonstrating the type of thinking and acting that they expect from others, including common sense. Unfortunately there is no room for error here as leaders are always being viewed from high-powered telescopes and microscopes and there is no cover.

Smart leaders collect a repertoire of common sense solutions and principles that can be plugged into a variety of situations as may be most appropriate when the timing is right.

This means the leader must increase his own store of common sense by taking reasonable risks to make nonfatal mistakes, learning to explore and vary innovative approaches to problem solving, studying how things work from inside-out, identifying fundamental governing and operating principles, applying ordinary creativity in new and unusual ways, going below the surface to uncover inter-relationships, and asking smart questions to get the most useful information.

Always write down a good common sense technique when you see it being applied successfully. And collect good quotes-these densely-packed words often capture common sense ingeniously and they can be communicated easily to others. Ihab Hassan had something interesting to say about quotes: "Quotations offer one kind of break in what the eye can see and the ear can hear."

Common Sense Tactic 3:
Work the Three Crucibles of Success

According to compelling labor industry and management effectiveness research, there are three crucibles of common sense that lead to success:

  • Thinking quotient, made up of what Robert Sternberg termed successful intelligence in blending logic, creativity, and practical sense to get results, with the resolve to be a perpetual learner

  • Determination quotient, which includes determination, commitment, intrinsic motivation, goal setting, and intense power of focus to maintain drive in the right direction

  • Van Sloan's social quotient, which involves the essential social skills of likeability and good communication to be an effective interpersonal magnate

Common Sense Tactic 4:
Express Positive Emotionality

One area of common sense that deserves special attention for leaders is combating the imbalance of negative emotionality in today's workplace. The Gallup Organization's research indicates that what we hear, see, and experience today at work is up to 75 percent negative, which is precariously out of balance. The adverse affect on productivity alone should be reason enough to do something about this problem.

The optimism and positive emotionality you can display as a leader is the most powerful tool with which you can combat this ominous, destructive imbalance that too many other people are ignoring. It is often a real test to do this during adversity, but that is when others who count most have you in their sights. Remember Reginald Mansell's words: "A pessimist is one who makes difficulties out of his opportunities; an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties." Martin Seligman has two excellent books out that summarize 30 years of his and other positive psychologists' research, called Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. Tom Rath's book, How Full Is Your Bucket?, is also a good one on this topic.

Common Sense Tactic 5:
Savor Interruptions

Interruptions-by captains, crime victims, perpetrators, city council members, public, media, the union, and individual officers-can be viewed as pain-in-the neck nuisances to avoid or special opportunities to teach common sense. The fact is that attending to interruptions is a very important part of the leadership role that often gets neglected. Interruptions are usually made by people who are experiencing a problem and may not have the level of common sense needed to solve the problem. Sometimes they just need a little clarification or airtime.

These are extreme teachable moments where people are at their listening peak. They are the P Points, or psychological power points, where a small, well-placed, and well-timed intervention gets big results. During these moments leaders can take the time to understand faulty thinking and actions and suggest some common sense approaches that have gotten them better results, such as asking better questions, uncovering some crucial details, questioning assumptions, and seeing how things may be interrelated below the surface. Mentoring common sense during these receptive moments is a powerful positive influence.

Common Sense Tactic 6:
Model Balance

Jesse Jackson once said, "Leadership has a harder job to do than choose sides. It must bring sides together." Most common sense principles and solutions are found between the extremes of something; hence the term golden mean. That is because an idea or action that considers both sides of the coin and takes the best from both sides is most likely to get the best results. This is often the creative solution that everyone wishes he had seen. Leaders who are balanced can see in all directions- the good and bad of opposite choices-and can make the wisest decisions from somewhere in between that will get the right results.

Knowing that people are often paradoxical and then accommodating their mutually exclusive needs, such as wanting to be treated equally and fairly and also needing autonomy and to be acknowledged for their unique differences, can help leaders win more support and effort from more people. When you are balanced, your views are very appealing to others. That is because they are grounded in common sense, which everyone desires.

The common sense approach here is offered by Harold Geneen: "The best leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in action."

Common Sense Tactic 7:
Practice Good Timing

Lao-Tzu offered a very wise saying in The Art of War that has wide applicability in life: "In anything timing is everything." Leaders can apply good timing to increase common sense by taking advantage of meaningful coincidences (important things don't happen by chance), becoming more sensitive to moments of opportunity vs. danger (the point of no return can get very slippery), knowing when others need personal encouragement or recognition (they rarely ask for it in the usual way), taking advantage of teachable moments, learning when to hold and when to fold, and getting others to ask their questions so you can give the answers you have accumulated from your experience.

Actually most of the good things you learn as a leader, require patience to be able to apply at the right time. Charles de Gaulle had an interesting strategy about this: "A true leader always keeps the element of surprise up his sleeve which others cannot grasp but which keeps his public excited and breathless."

Common Sense Tactic 8:
Ask Good Questions

Success and motivational coach Tony Robbins has observed, "The really creative people ask the best questions." When all is said and done, it is the questions that prompt productive change, not the answers. The most useful information comes from good questions and smart leaders learn the art of asking great questions. Excellent questions that result in common sense solutions are ones such as: How can this problem be fixed right now, cured tonight and prevented from happening tomorrow? What is the likely consequence of not taking any action now? Do others understand, buy into and actually carry out my messages and instructions? What is the smartest thing I can do right now to get the best results? What is keeping me from being able to do this?

Common Sense Tactic 9:
Be Reasonable

Tacitus said, "Reason and judgment are the paramount qualities of a good leader." Common sense actions are often those we associate with what we expect from any reasonable person under similar circumstances. This gives the leader a license to be reasonable in bringing ideal and real standards closer together. It is in knowing what is present in that gap that defines reasonableness.

While high standards are good in theory, it is the gap between where people are and where you want them to be, that deserves most of your attention. Applying common sense solutions in the crevices and trenches to close that gap is what gets needed results so you can raise the bar the next time. Beware though; the gap often gets wider when you are not tending the store. Never assume you know what is going on in the trenches unless your shoes are muddy

Common Sense Tactic 10:
Practice Reverence

Max De Pree has a great saying: "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant." When all else fails, practice reverence. In fact a good store of reverence can make up for when your TQ (thinking quotient), DQ (determination quotient), and SQ (social quotient) wells are a little dry.

Reverence is simply expressing a feeling of profound awe, respect, and veneration for life and people. Every person wants to be respected for who they are, what they know, and what they can do, even if he or she is a new recruit and under the age of 25. Showing such respect is practicing the epitome of common sense and it is guaranteed to draw long-term, loyal followers and be returned tenfold. There is nothing more admirable than a humble, quiet achiever who respects the lesser but important achievements of others.

Common Sense Tactic 11:
Always Follow Up

An American proverb says it best: "A miss is as good as a mile." Common sense means getting good results, but there are never any results without following something through to its conclusion. The typical mayhem that challenges time management skills of the best law enforcement leaders often results in the details of follow-up getting lost in the cracks. Despite this natural tendency, follow-up and follow-through must be priorities that always stay in focus.

Forgetting to follow up a year's effort with five minutes' worth of time is not applying good common sense. It is usually good common sense to finish what you started. As you know, if you don't enforce accountability, it never gets done. On the other hand, according to Michelangelo, a painting that starts out bad will finish worse, so it is also important to save your best finishes to complete your best starts.

Common Sense Tactic 12:
Allow Time to Laugh

The entire criminal justice system is too negative and serious. Once you take charge of the chaos of your own thinking and your fundamental priorities start surfacing, you can see the few true crises that really deserve our intervention efforts and then have a good laugh at all the rest. Along-time friend of mine wisely admonished, "Don't take life too seriously; after all, you're not going to get out of it alive." Make sure you collect funny stories, video clips, and jokes to laugh at when things start getting too serious.

Law enforcement leaders can be successful in increasing common sense in their organizations by overcoming their thinking limitations, increasing their own store of common sense, working the three success crucibles of TQ, DQ and SQ, expressing positive emotionality, and using interruptions as teachable moments; they can continue by modeling balance, practicing good timing, being reasonable, showing reverence, asking good questions, following things up to get results, and allowing time to laugh. But always be humbled by the words of Nancy Barcus, "The closer one gets to the top, the more one finds there is no top." ■

The author invites questions and comments. Write to him at (, or call him at 425-454-5011.



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 3, April 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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