You Can’t Lead, If You Don’t Know Your People

November 8, 2017

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, after WW II, gave a speech at a West Point graduation. In it he offered some sage advice to the cadets who were now officers.

You must know every single one of your men. It is not enough that you are the best soldier in that unit, that you are the strongest, the toughest, the most durable, the best equipped, technically—you must be their leader … That cultivation of human understanding between you and your men is the one part that you must yet master, and you must master it quickly.”

I have a question for you police supervisors out there: Do you know and understand who are your officers and what is truly important to them?

I mean: Do you really and truly know who they are as individuals?

I love to engage the cops I meet at the 50 or so seminars I conduct annually. I go out to lunch and dinners with them. Sometimes we have a couple of beers. When they talk I listen. Then I ask questions, and listen some more.

Over the past two years, I have found that the predominant issues among them falls into two categories, though they both address the same subject.

  1. The mischaracterization of the profession by the media, politicians and pundits; and
  2. The lack of support from their bosses because of No. 1.

I couldn’t even begin to guess how often I have heard police officers in cities and towns of every size, say things along these lines:

  • My Chief will throw me under the bus to save his own career!”
  • The public doesn’t want us to be proactive, the bosses don’t want us to be proactive, and they can’t make us be proactive anyway. So, I’m done.”
  • They can’t fire me for doing nothing, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
  • I’ve got two kids in college, I’m not risking my job. So I’ll just sit on my ass. Because, I know if I get in trouble I will not be backed up.”
  • My chief cares about what the politicians and newspapers say, nothing else. She is preparing for a retirement job, that’s her focus. And she doesn’t care that we know it.”
  • The public thinks we train like warriors because the media hypes that narrative. So our chief overreacts and promises to make the necessary changes. But the public has no idea how we actually train and, apparently, neither does the chief.”
  • There is a sign in our roll-call room that literally says, “Don’t wind up on YouTube today.” That’s our real Mission Statement.”

I glean two truths out of these types of statements: Bosses don’t know their personnel as individuals, and their personnel don’t trust their bosses.


They probably don’t interact as people. Too often—and I worked for a guy like this—bosses believe employees to be mere cogs in the organizational wheel. Necessary components in order for means to be met.

I guarantee, belief systems such as these, if allowed to fester, will permeate the psyche of your agency. Naturally this severely damages morale, the communal spirit, the organizational culture. Then comes the inevitable breakdown of trust. Once trust disappears, the institution becomes toxic.

Catastrophic failure is close behind.

Down to Relationships

What former President and Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower tried conveying in his speech was obvious: Leaders, must know your people as individuals: who they are, what they think, what are their passions and beliefs. For it is those unique individuals, who will or will not, ultimately determine organizational success or failure.

Knowing someone, and letting them know you, is how relationships develop. Relationships can only flourish if there is trust—trust being the most necessary of ingredients for a functional and enriching organizational culture.

If they don’t know you, they won’t trust you. If you don’t know them, then how can you possibly motivate them? If you don’t interact and share, they will have limited information on which to form opinions about you. They will rely on the beliefs and judgements of others. There will be separation and a lack of trust—not just between you and your employees, but throughout the entire organization.

I know what some of you are thinking: “I don’t have time to know about everyone in my organization!”  And you’re right, if you’re the chief of a massive agency. What matters is that you know everyone specifically under your care. Sergeants need know their immediate troops. Lieutenants, know your sergeants. Captains, your lieutenants, and so on and so forth. Knowing your team is what’s important. Do that!


Every group forms a culture or “communal spirit.” And according to the late Peter Drucker, a guru of effective management, “People are dependent on the organization’s Communal Spirit as a guide to their mood and subsequent behavior.”

If the communal spirit is negative, if at its core there’s a lack of trust, the subsequent behavior of those who are supposed to be accomplishing the organizational Mission, will be negatively affected. For cops, that too often means shutting down.

So bosses, please be acutely aware of the relationships that are happening all around you. Be a part of them. You aren’t managing widgets. You are leading, compelling, and motivating people. Bottom line: Be a person, not a rank.


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  1. Todd

    Respectfully, I believe though leadership has many characteristics like competence, confidence, leading from the front, etc. I believe it can be condensed, distilled, and synthesized into just this. You “care” (like a good father) whether your people live or die. And you are more than willing to step into the physical, political, or any other gap necessary to suffer and die for your people when they are acting rightly and justly. When they screw up they are encouraged to do the next right thing and self report taking their medicine like a man. If they refuse – you exercise authentic accountability which comes by way of discipline, consequences, punishment.

    There are not a few lost souls today who sit in the seat of leadership that if you did communicate with they would only confirm for you they love principles like “plausible deniability,” and your “morale,” which equals fighting spirit or the will to fight would diminish. We need as G.K. Chesterton once said, men with chests. Leading is simple – yet oh so very hard as it comes with a steep cost. Who today is willing to accept that bill?

  2. Todd

    Regardless of where you work there are always two major challenges that always hold sway: Productivity and relationships.

  3. Dukeq27

    Unfortunately there are those, especially in a large police organization, that only give a rats petunia, about the furtherance of their careers and the smooth movement up the ladder. Throwing the occasional underling under the bus just greases the way. Another common issue I saw first hand was not promoting those truly competent in accomplishing various missions and objectives as those folks made the higher ups look good if they were promoted with alacrity then that expertise may be lost. And don’t get me started on affirmative action promotions based on gender, race and sexual orientation.


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