It has been said that “culture eats strategy,” and in this time of intense focus on the law enforcement profession, we often hear calls for culture change and reform alongside the calls for new policies and strategies. Increasingly, police chiefs are appointed with a mandate to “change the culture.” But how well do we understand law enforcement culture and the key role we play as leaders in shaping that culture?
Several years ago, Stephen R. Covey was leading a strategy session with law enforcement executives when a senior executive began to complain about his organization’s culture. Dr. Covey asked him how long he had been in his senior leadership position, and the executive proudly responded, “Twelve years.” Covey replied, “If you have been in your position for even one day and have not done anything to shift your culture, then you own it.”
Leadership is a powerful influence on officers’ behaviors and development, but so, too, is agency culture. Every time leaders speak, make a decision, tell a joke, send emails, or interact with others, they are shaping the culture around them.
At the IACP, we are taking on the mission to both understand and educate our profession’s leaders so that we better understand what culture is; how it is shaped; and how we, as leaders, can be more mindful and intentional in our roles as architects of culture.
In the December 2016 edition of Police Chief, Simon Sinek wrote an article titled “Circle of Safety: Leadership’s Role in the Law Enforcement Environment,” wherein he describes our challenge in shaping the environment or culture and asks the provocative question, “What kind of environment are police working in today?”1
There are powerful influences on our organizational culture that we cannot overlook. What are the artifacts visible in your agency that reveal who you are and what is important to you and your colleagues? What is on your bulletin boards? How is role call conducted and what is the climate and daily discussion? What is the energy, creativity, engagement, and teamwork on display in your agency? At the root of all these lies culture.
During my career and through my experience in leading three law enforcement agencies, I have learned some key lessons about organizational and professional culture:
- Language matters. For example, using the terms “amplify” or “enhance,” rather than “change” matters because it affects how our officers feel about our focus and initiatives. “Change” implies something is wrong that must be fixed; “amplify” or “enhance” say much is right, but more can be done.
- We cannot shift the culture unless we first have empathy for the existing culture. We must understand, rather than judge, the current state. The culture has become what it is for a reason, and that history must be understood and respected.
- We must have very visible artifacts and mantras that will shape our belief systems; language; and, ultimately, behaviors.
- There must be a visible and ever-present philosophy and organizational principles that are uncompromising.
- Listen—listen—listen! If you listen and pay attention, the culture will quickly reveal itself.
During my tenure as IACP president, I will be laser-focused on the big three influences on our people: leadership, culture, and education. Of these three, we very likely understand and place the least emphasis on the issue of
culture—however, at IACP, we hope to remedy that oversight.
In 2011, Warren Buffett, the sage and leader of Berkshire Hathaway, appointed his son to the unpaid and sacred position of “guardian” of the culture, wherein he does not direct investments, but, instead, serves as the “guardian of the company’s traditions and practices,” values, and beliefs.2 The questions we face as we lead our agencies are what is our culture and who is the guardian of it? ♦
1 Simon Sinek, “Circle of Safety: Leadership’s Role in the Law Enforcement Environment,” The Police Chief 83, no. 12 (December 2016): 62–65.
2 “Buffett Wants Son to Chair Berkshire,” 60 Minutes, December 9, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/buffett-wants-son-to-chair-berkshire.