Leadership traits: How do you and your 'leaders' measure up?

“Anyone can lead on easy days, even a bad leader. It’s the tough days when true leaders shine.” — Col. Danny McKnight

Danny McKnight, who spoke those words recently to a gathering of cops, knows first-hand the toughest of days and the traits it takes to lead others through them under fire.

Now retired as an Army colonel, he was the convoy commander who responded with elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment to the infamous Black Hawk Down incident nearly 20 years ago in blood-drenched Somalia. In a siege shaped by what he characterizes as “stupid decisions” at a political level, 18 American lives were lost to rebel combatants. Many more were saved thanks to heroic performance by ground troops in the fearsome streets of Mogadishu.

These days McKnight addresses law enforcement audiences and other groups on the attributes that undergird successful leadership under adverse conditions in the high-risk professions of soldiering and policing. He stresses the commonalities of the two callings, including “very similar values” and “the shared reality of sacrifice.” If he had not gone into the Army, he says, he would have chosen police work as his career. He expresses pride in the fact that his son-in-law is a deputy sheriff and shift leader in Florida.

People are Not Born Leaders

We heard McKnight at a daylong seminar organized by the East Central Illinois Police Training Project, where, to a standing ovation, he introduced three former Army Rangers who survived the Mogadishu fighting with him.

People are not born leaders, McKnight declared. “You learn how to lead from two types of leaders, good and bad. You can learn as much from bad ones as from good ones, because from the bad you learn what you never want to do.”

The vast majority of people choose to be followers, McKnight said. “A smaller number get the opportunity to lead. There is no greater privilege you can have in life than to lead. How you lead determines whether you cherish that privilege. The number you lead — five or 5,000 — is unimportant.”

Along with compellingly revealing “inside” details of what happened when the two U.S. airships were shot down in Somalia in October, 1993, he itemized some of the traits he considers essential to outstanding leadership. They make a challenging checklist for self-assessment.

How well do the men and women who are presumed to lead you because of superior rank come out? And how do you personally fare in terms of these key leadership qualities?

1. Personal Courage

In a leadership context, “this has nothing to do with bravery in facing danger,” McKnight explained. “It means making the hard, right decision, which often takes personal courage. Great leaders are willing to do that; bad leaders make easy, wrong decisions.”

What’s right is determined by answering two questions: “What makes the organization the best it can be and what makes the people in it the best they can be,” McKnight said.

Sometimes the right decision means things have to be done differently and “you have to tell people who’ve done things one way for 20 years that they need to change. People don’t like change, and you’re going to make them do something they don’t want to do.

“Bad leaders say, ‘I don’t want to face that conflict. People may not like me.’ If you want to be a good leader but you worry about popularity, you’re going to fail. Popularity and leadership are not synonyms. Leadership is about taking care of the organization you’re in charge of and the people in it. They’ll get over their discontent when they realize change was necessary and right.”

2. Integrity & Honor

These qualities are intertwined, McKnight said. He described integrity as “the most important single attribute in your life. Integrity makes you who you are. It’s your character, it’s you. You have integrity the day you come into the world. No one can take it from you. But you can compromise or negotiate your integrity and give it up.

“Honor is individual integrity multiplied. Honor affects institutions. The police profession is honorable, and each of you make it honorable because of your integrity. When you put integrity aside, you can bring dishonor to the institution you are a part of, so each of us has a responsibility to live up to our personal integrity to maintain the honor of our organization.

“We all have things in our lives that can bring dishonor. But we need to confront them and fix them. Great leaders don’t mind being challenged.”

3. Respect for Subordinates

“No leader always makes right decisions all by himself,” McKnight said. “Great leaders don’t operate in a vacuum. When they’re stumped for an answer, they go to their peers and their subordinates for guidance.

“Respect for the people you are leading” is paramount, he emphasized. “Your subordinates should be the most important thing to you every day. Bad leaders focus on making themselves look good and often don’t care about subordinates. Great leaders try to lead their men and women to be successful.

“Teach by example. Don’t talk it, do it. Do what you expect your officers to do and do it with them. You’ll learn from them in the process. If you can’t walk the talk, they will eat your lunch — and it’s a long way back” to regaining their respect.

“Subordinates don’t worry about what you did yesterday. Yesterday is history.” McKnight said. “Concentrate on what you’re doing today and going to do tomorrow. Subordinates will always give the leader who respects them that extra effort, which so often makes the difference.”

4. Two-way Communication

McKnight was succinct on this one: “If you can’t communicate, you can’t reach. Subordinates must know what’s expected of them.” And if your troops can’t communicate with you, you can’t learn. “They must be able to transmit any constraints they have that keep them from accomplishing what’s asked of them.”

5. Commitment to Realistic Training

With budgets tightening today, McKnight acknowledged that “it’s not easy” for officers to get adequate training. But, he said, “it’s our responsibility as leaders” to see that they do. “We will never have enough equipment or money, so what we do possess must be utilized wisely.”

Echoing the sentiments of progressive LE trainers, he stressed commitment to realistic effort: “Train the way you’re going to fight because you’re going to fight the way you train. Train as close to reality as you can get; push your people to the edge so they’re not absolutely stunned when they do it for real.

“I too often see people not training the way they would want to fight, but I’ve never seen anyone who’s able to flip a magic switch in a fight and say, ‘OK, it’s real now, I have to perform different.’ You can’t stop the fight and say, ‘I’m not trained to do this.’

“One thing you can never do too much of is put a weapon in your hand, pull the trigger, and hit the target.” He recalled once asking an outstanding shooter why he was “always going to the range.” The reply: “I’m pretty good, but I think I can get better. If I don’t go, I can never be better.”

“As a leader,” McKnight said, “your commitment to training has to be even greater than the people you lead. Bad leaders show up after their subordinates are already there and leave earlier. Leadership requires you to be there first and leave last.

“Training with your people is how you learn the strengths and weaknesses of everyone. This becomes important in making decisions under fire.

“It goes without saying that physical fitness is essential to a successful training program. Physical fitness is one of the greatest combat multipliers. Physical fitness promotes mental fitness which promotes emotional fitness.”

6. Accountability

In determining who’s a good leader and who’s bad, look at accountability, McKnight suggested. “A bad leader takes personal credit quickly when things go well. He blames everyone else when things go wrong. If you have such a leader, you’ll survive it and you’ll lean from it so you can be a better leader.

“Good leaders don’t throw people under the bus. When the media walk up after some incident and ask why things went well, a good leader says, ‘My subordinates made it happen.’ When they ask why things went wrong, the good leader says, ‘I’m looking at what I can do better.’

In McKnight’s view, responsibility goes beyond events of the moment. “As a leader, I am accountable for everything I do and for everything my subordinates do 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It’s easy to be accountable for yourself, not so easy to be accountable for others. But as a leader, you should be.”

He left the audience with this thought: All the leadership traits he enumerated are important. “You can choose any of them as most important for how you lead. We all lead individually. Don’t try to imitate others. Learn from others but lead your way.”

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