Book excerpt: Reimagining Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and a New Way Forward in Policing

A police chief shares how a mentor who had to smuggle in leadership books to and from work impacted her career


The following is excerpted from "Reimagining Blue: Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and a New Way Forward in Policing," by police chief Kristen Ziman. In her 30-year career at the Aurora (Illinois) Police Department, she became the first female lieutenant, commander and police chief in the history of her department. She learned life and leadership lessons through the revelation of what not to do. But nothing could have prepared Kristen for a pandemic, mass shooting and civil unrest that threatened the trusting relationship between her department and her community.

Kristen Ziman credits her colorful childhood for the temperament that led her to gravitate toward policing, a profession where chaos is all in a day’s work.
Kristen Ziman credits her colorful childhood for the temperament that led her to gravitate toward policing, a profession where chaos is all in a day’s work.

WHEN THE STUDENT IS READY, THE MASTER APPEARS

When I was a 19-year-old cadet, a captain in my police department took a professional interest in me. Michael Nila took me under his wing and pushed me so hard that I don’t believe I would have been promoted through the ranks had it not been for his influence. I didn’t have a clue back then, but as I retrace my steps, I realize the impact he had on my success.

Captain Nila was a tough cop in his day, but he was also an academic cop before it was cool. He told me stories of how the other officers had porn magazines stashed in their desk drawers while he had leadership books. His intellect and drive made him the youngest officer ever promoted to sergeant and then to lieutenant, and he believed people resented him for that. When his boss called him into the office to ask him not to bring books to the department, he started carrying a briefcase with his academic literature so no one could see it. Problem solved.

I found it hilarious that he had to smuggle leadership books to and from work. It speaks to the old culture of policing and lends itself to the level of anti-intellectualism our profession once had.

Michael made lieutenant and captain in his early forties, so it seemed pretty clear to me that he was doing something right. Captain Nila changed me for the better. He pushed me toward education, and he insisted that I take my career into my own hands.

One night at work, he handed me a flyer and strongly suggested that I attend an event in Chicago where author Stephen Covey would be lecturing on his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." The event was on my day off, and I recalled having a fleeting thought about spending my off time in a lecture listening to a guy I’d never heard of, but I also didn’t want to disappoint my boss – so I went.

I remember sitting in the audience and being fully conscious of the exact moment all the molecules inside me shifted. I was in the front row, and Covey was lecturing on each of the seven leadership habits, and that’s when I became enlightened to the roadmap for success. The principles Covey taught were universal, and they became ingrained in the way I did my job from that moment forward. By adopting the second habit – to “begin with the end in mind” – I drafted my blueprint for the path forward. Each habit built upon the last, and when I adhered to them, success was the natural consequence.

Captain Nila exposed me to an academic world I didn’t know existed. I suddenly understood why he pursued knowledge because even though it had nothing to do with policing, it had everything to do with policing. Before that time, I had only read cop books because it seemed obvious that’s what I should do. But when I started branching out into leadership and the psychology of people, it changed the way I saw the world. I began reading everything I could get my hands on.

Captain Nila delved even deeper into Covey’s material and decided to pursue his certification to teach for Stephen Covey’s company, Franklin Covey. The certification required learning the material and following a set curriculum to teach it. Once he got proficient at instructing, he encouraged me to do the same.

I was reluctant to begin teaching because I didn’t feel as though I had successfully mastered the seven habits. Habit #5 – to “seek first to understand, and then be understood” – tripped me up a lot because in my twenties, my default was to skip the part where I tried to understand and get to the part where I was understood. I was impatient and still found myself resorting to my bossy self. I called Michael one day and told him I couldn’t teach the seven habits to others because I was stumbling over them myself. It seemed hypocritical to teach on matters of enlightenment when I was far from it.

The answer came from Stephen Covey himself – not in a dream or anything weird like that. Michael had called Covey, who responded that even he struggled with following all the habits all the time. Indeed, the journey is in the struggle, and being conscious of falling off the path is part of the process to get back on it. There you have it. Stephen said it was okay that I wasn’t perfect, so I pressed on and got better and better at recognizing when I wasn’t in alignment. The more I taught, the better I understood the habits, and the better I got at applying them. It was the most defining time in my life because it set me on a trajectory to commit myself to constant self-improvement.

I started to find my voice, and I applied everything I learned in my role as a cop. I got better at my job because of it. Captain Nila retired in 1999, so I had only five years on the job when he left, but his influence on me didn’t stop when he left the police department. Nila trained me to branch out in my teaching, and I taught diversity and leadership classes on my days off, traveling to police departments and organizations all over the nation. Although I was in the instructor role, I learned more from the class participants and my co-facilitators than they did from me.

After I was promoted to sergeant, Nila suggested I go back to school to earn my master’s degree. Then he steered me toward a leadership program at Harvard. My police department didn’t have the budget to send me to the Harvard Kennedy School, so he encouraged me to apply for a grant from a private foundation. He made me understand that there was always a way through even if it wasn’t a straight line.

I’ve tried to pay it forward by identifying officers who possess talent and passion. When someone exhibits “boss” qualities, tell them. It costs you nothing, and it doesn’t diminish you in any way. And if you are on the receiving end of a person who tells you they see a spark of greatness in you, listen to them. Good leaders see those sparks, and the best leaders help you turn that spark into a burning inferno. Listen to them and let them guide you. It’s been my experience that the people who have potential rarely see it in themselves. That’s the paradox of being amazing. If you truly are, you don’t know it.

NEXT: The value of a formal mentoring program

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