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Leadership lessons I learned as a field training officer

My trainees taught me invaluable lessons about leadership I use throughout my career

A few months before I retired as the Training and Education Division Commander, I began to reflect on my career and where I learned the most about leadership and supervision. I came to one conclusion: my time as a field training officer.

In this role, I passed on information that was essential for new officer training, as well as items I thought were important. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my trainees taught me invaluable lessons about leadership I used throughout my career. Most importantly, I learned you must have trust, an open mind and empathy, and that there is no definition for minimum standard.

In their book, “The Leadership Challenge,” James Kouzes and Barry Posner state that, “A grand dream doesn’t become a significant reality through the actions of a single person. It requires a team effort. It requires solid trust and strong relationships.” The relationship and trust between a trainer and a trainee is built over time as the trainee learns they do not have to fear the trainer but instead they can work as a team. Once this occurs, the officer becomes more productive as they feel safe identifying problems and offering solutions. This relationship and trust between these two people often last a lifetime.

1. Effective leaders learn to trust

In a leadership role, the ability to trust and have an open mind is not always easy. However, leaders who do not possess these qualities can become micromanagers.

Just as a field trainer learns to trust that their trainee will do the right thing, a leader must trust those that they work with will do their jobs. Trusting an officer’s abilities builds confidence and creates an environment they enjoy working in. Just as the trainer built trust with the trainee, once the leader establishes trust, they find themselves working with officers who are more productive, happier at work and seek solutions to problems that may arise.

2. Effective leaders know their way is not the only way

Having an open mind and accepting there are various methods to accomplish a task is difficult at first. Most of us are very structured in the way we conduct business and it’s tough to stand by and watch someone complete a task differently than we would.

When I became a trainer, I thought everyone would write as I did, talk to people the same way, and have the same thoughts and ideas. This was quickly proven wrong.

However, allowing a trainee to struggle and fail is an essential part of their education. We must allow them to think for themselves, use the resources available to them and make decisions on their own. This will instill the confidence and competence needed to be successful.

3. Effective leaders practice self-reflection

Open-minded leaders are surrounded by officers who are smart, innovative and driven by a desire for excellence. However, having an open mind as a leader does not mean that a leader accepts every suggestion. What it does mean is that leaders do not let their decision-making abilities become clouded by assumptions. Being a leader who will listen to suggestions, implement them and give proper credit, conveys an attitude that filters to others.

Leaders who did not benefit from the lessons I learned as a field training officer may find it difficult to have an open mind and trust their officers. Only when a leader practices self-reflection and acknowledges their weaknesses, strengths, flaws and biases will they be able to truly appreciate the skills of those they work with.

4. Effective leaders demonstrate empathy

We all started at the same place as a trainee. The ability to empathize with their struggles and problems was an essential element of leadership for me. We have all had the same doubts, questions and confidence issues that plague new officers. Being able to understand this makes a better experience for everyone.

In my position as a leader, I supervised officers of various ranks, assignments and performance levels. The ability to put myself in their shoes allowed me to objectively analyze a situation and respond appropriately. My ability to empathize allowed me to communicate in a way that made sense to others. Disciplining an officer with empathy allowed me to have a two-way conversation with the officer. This reduced the tension associated with discipline and allowed me to turn a negative situation into a positive learning tool. This is not to say I condoned the behavior or accepted it, only that I analyzed it with an open mind and responded appropriately.

5. Effective leaders embrace objectivity

I quickly learned there is not a definition for minimum standards. If a trainee was struggling, and I discussed it with my supervisor, they would always ask, “Are they meeting minimum standards?” We had numerical forms in which we rated the trainee, but those forms were very subjective. My constant quest in seeking a definition was not a mere hobby. In doing so, many of my peers learned that being a trainer is objective with a lot of subjectivity. As field trainers, we must evaluate the trainee based on their individual abilities and not compare them to another trainee.

In a leadership role, just as a field trainer, I resisted the urge to compare the performance of one officer to another. As such, I sought an acceptable definition of the term minimum standards.

This quest was often humorous and at times frustrating. Although there are evaluation forms, mostly numerical, in which a certain number meets minimum standards, how do we assign a number to someone? My goal in this quest was to bring more objectivity in evaluations.

Many trainers, just as leaders, tend to compare them to their best officer/trainee. As leaders, we must be objective. I sought a higher standard of objectivity that allowed me to develop a structured analytical decision-making process by taking the individual into account. Resisting the urge to compare one officer to another, I considered each officer’s performance. This process resulted in all officers who worked with me being evaluated in a fair manner based on their individual performance. In doing so, I found I objectively evaluated each officer with an open mind, had trust in their abilities and a degree of empathy, thus providing me with an acceptable application of the term minimum standard.

As a leader, I worked hard at being fair and objective. Value was placed in each officers’ abilities, suggestions and creativity. Simon Sinek said, “The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” By having trust in those you work with, an open mind, empathy and an acceptable definition of minimum standards this environment is possible. For me, these lessons in leadership were learned as a field training officer.

Wayne has 28 years of law enforcement experience and retired from the Gainesville (Florida) Police Department in 2018. He served as a patrol/FTO sergeant, patrol commander, deputy district commander, and commander of the training and education division. He has a Master of Arts in Criminal Justice, as well as a Master of Business Administration.

He has been an instructor for over 25 years, teaching law enforcement classes from basic to advanced. Wayne currently teaches at the SW Virginia Criminal Justice Academy, as well as Leadership and FTO classes for Advanced Police Concepts.