By Sgt. Ernie Stephens | May 1, 2005
Spotting the Good Leader
Last February, I had the pleasure of meeting dozens of fellow law enforcement aviators at the helicopter pilot’s equivalent of Mecca: Heli-Expo 2005 in Anaheim, Calif. Of course, there was a lot of talk about aircraft, airborne crime fighting and mission equipment. But there was also a lot of talk about the one subject that evokes more emotion than any other: leadership–more specifically, who was happy with theirs and who wasn’t. I decided to go on a hunt to see if I could identify true airborne law enforcement leaders.
As a 25-year veteran of police work, I already knew that slapping on stripes, gold bars and other such insignia of rank didn’t make a person a good leader anymore than putting the name Boeing on a Buick makes it a good airliner. So, I decided to look deeper, and it wasn’t long before I identified a few key traits that transcend shallow things such as titles and gold braid. By the end of the event, I had a pretty good idea of who the great leaders were without ever having worked for them. Their conduct exposed them faster than the bulge under a tee shirt exposes an off-duty cop.
Participation–First of all, just showing up at an event like Heli-Expo was not, in and of itself, a sign of a good leader. Poor leaders came, too, but they spent most of their time everywhere except the convention center. The good leaders did more than check in at the hotel and register at the show. They questioned dozens of vendors in the exhibition hall to see if the vendors were selling something their unit could use. They hit as many workshops as they could, and quizzed flight crews from other jurisdictions to see what they were doing. When awards were being handed out, or when aircraft were being delivered, the good leaders were standing tall with their flight crews, grinning from ear to ear, often from the back row. At the end of the day, the good leaders were still talking about what they saw and heard at the show and the workshops, even when the waiter was the only one left to talk to.
Knowledge–The good leaders knew a lot about their operation, aircraft and crews. Most could answer every technical and operational question with ease. They were especially up on the money side of everything. The ones who couldn’t rattle off such data didn’t try to fake it. In most cases, they were new to the unit and readily admitted that. They apologized profusely for their shortcoming and proudly grabbed someone who knew more. Best of all, they listened intently to the answer so that they could learn the correct response. Frequently, I would see a newly purchased book or technical manual in their tote bag, along with a ream of literature from various vendors.
Aggressiveness–This is a mild way to describe what I saw from the good leaders. Some of them flat out harassed manufacturers, service providers and equipment vendors who weren’t delivering an expected level of service. They used the weight of their rank to demand, threaten and leverage what their people needed. They then left the convention center with what they wanted, or carrying the head of the vendor who didn’t cooperate. The exceptional leaders were equally aggressive when handing out praise. They slapped service reps on the back and handed out patches to sales people with equal enthusiasm.
Pride–When asked, the good leaders reported every shortcoming of their equipment, working conditions and (ever so gently) their administration. But in the very next breath they bragged about how their people still got the job done. They regaled listeners with stories of their crews’ great apprehensions, harrowing acts of valor, and conduct above and beyond the call of duty. When asked about themselves, they came back with a short one-line answer before quickly turning the topic back to their subordinates. They wore their Class A uniforms, flight suits and polo shirts with pride, and kept giveaway unit patches and ball caps at the ready. The size and age of their unit didn’t matter. As far as they were concerned, their operation was one of the best–if not the best–in the business.
Respect–The final piece of the puzzle is what I heard from the flight crewmembers themselves. They spoke of their leaders’ dedication to and interest in the airborne law enforcement mission. They mentioned how often the good leader was still banging away on the computer long after most other managers would have been home finishing dessert. I heard people say that the good commander was quick to pat them on the back for a job well done, but got equally tough when someone or something jeopardized the welfare of their people or operation. The good leader’s motives weren’t hollow. They weren’t trying to get promoted. They were just trying to do the right thing.
So, what is it that typifies the bad aviation unit leader? I have some first hand experience with that question!
The worst that I have seen was dumped into the unit, and never developed an interest in any part of the mission. He enjoyed telling everyone that he ran a cool unit, but after a year, he still hadn’t been in the aircraft for longer than 45 min. total. (No kidding.) His firm belief was that "running an aviation unit is no different from running any other kind of unit." The good aviation leaders laugh out loud when they hear that. Try it and see!
If you are fortunate enough to have a good leader, count your blessings. If you happen to have the other kind, please check your blood pressure regularly.