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Lessons in Leadership: Finding courage when it counts

The real measure of courage is getting past the fear, even when you’re scared out of your mind


Courage is not about being a hero; it’s inside every one of us.


This article is part of a 10-part Lessons in Leadership series by Rich Emberlin. Click here to access all of Rich’s leadership lessons.

Policing has historically been a job; today it is recognized as a genuine profession. Today’s police force is comprised of highly trained, exceptionally smart individuals who possess specialized knowledge and skills. Whether it’s a police chief overseeing a department or a patrol officer responding to 9-1-1 calls, law enforcement leaders exist in all ranks of our profession.

Lessons in Leadership is a 10-part series covering the most important principles I learned during my nearly 30-year career with the Dallas Police Department. From explosive confrontations to quiet defining moments, there’s no shortage of wisdom to be earned in one of the world’s most dangerous professions.

As the sun began its early-morning ascent in the skies above Dallas, I stood three feet outside the front door of a small apartment, staring at an explosive charge. Eight operators, armed to the teeth, were stacked up behind me prepared to breach the door. We all knew the stakes – inside the apartment were a madman and an innocent young child. The next few moments would determine the conclusion of a horrifying hostage situation that had dragged on mercilessly throughout the night.

I’m probably not going to live through this, I thought. I’m going to be killed in the next few minutes, and that’s just what it is. I waited for the fear to sink in, but it never came. It scared me that I wasn’t scared.

The sergeant’s voice crackled in my earpiece. “Five…four…three…two…one!”

Boom! The explosive charge detonated.

“Rescue, rescue, rescue!” the sergeant ordered.

Courage, confidence and the wisdom to know the difference

Courage is a trait unlike any other. It’s not ever-present like kindness or tangible like compassion. Courage patiently waits until the heat is on to make an appearance.

Before I became a cop myself, I assumed police officers were untouchable action heroes. The naïve, twentysomething version of me idolized them, bestowing the badge with an almost mythical quality. Cops were fearless, unflappable and wore confidence like a second skin. It only took a few years in SWAT for me to realize how simplistic that perception was, given the inherent complexities of our life-and-death profession.

Courage and confidence are sometimes thought of interchangeably, but there is a big difference. Confidence is more permanent; courage manifests in fleeting moments. Courage is when you find yourself running toward gunfire, knowing the risks, fearing like hell for your life and the lives of others, and doing it anyway. That’s our job as police officers – to find the noise and make it stop.

I’ve seen some of the most confident people I know panic in dire situations. I’ve also been surprised by displays of bravery when I least expected it. In the hostage situation referenced above, we had a failed breach after the explosive charge detonated. The door splintered into pieces but didn’t blow all the way open. The chain lock held, and the entrance was barricaded with furniture.

André Taylor, one of our rookie SWAT officers, suddenly appeared next to me, sledgehammer in hand.

“Get out of the way, Rich,” André said. “I’ll get this door open for you.”

He had left his place in the back of the line to come to the front. Other breachers had been closer, so it wasn’t even André’s responsibility. But he didn’t hesitate to step up. He pushed me out of the way and put himself in the line of fire. André took a few hard swings, opened the door and used brute force to shove the furniture aside. It was our job to rescue hostages, but it’s never easy to place yourself in the path of a violent, homicidal maniac with a loaded weapon. I believe André’s motivation to save that child enabled him to push past any fears he might have had.

Courage is not about eliminating fear; it’s about managing it

There is a misconception that cops are supposed to feel or be brave all the time, no matter what. Feeling brave all the time is unrealistic and has more to do with ego than anything else. The real measure of courage is getting past the fear, even when you’re scared out of your mind.

Most people don’t realize how brave they are until they get tested. There have been numerous examples of selfless acts, superhuman strength and iron will being demonstrated under extenuating circumstances. When people ask how I was able to handle dangerous situations, I tell them I’m not a hero. I often ask if they have children. They typically nod and give me a puzzled look before I say, “What would you do if a gun-toting or knife-wielding assailant attempted to take your children from you?”

I’ve never had a parent hesitate to say they would charge that individual with every ounce of strength they have and fight to the death. It all goes back to their motivation; their desire to save their children would overcome any fear of being injured or even killed.

When I graduated from the police academy and got my badge and gun, I remember saying to myself, Now you better earn it. That has been my motivation ever since.

Sometimes courage means walking away

One of the hardest lessons I had to learn about courage is what it isn’t. In my rookie years, I had an undying desire to go after the bad guys with every ounce of aggression possible, no matter what the circumstances. Stay in the fight, don’t let up and never walk away. Sometimes that meant I was chasing five suspects on foot, in the dark of night, with no backup.

My dad, a highly decorated Air Force aviator, pulled me aside one day and introduced me to the concept of air combat maneuvering - the tactical art (ballet) of moving, turning and/or situating one’s fighter aircraft in order to attain a position from which an attack can be made. Air combat maneuvers rely on both offensive and defensive tactics to gain an advantage over an opponent.

He said, “Sometimes it’s better to not push a bad position in a fight and come back to fight another day. Trust me, the bad guys will still be there later!”

From that moment on, I realized that riding in like John Wayne wasn’t always the smartest choice. Sometimes chasing suspects isn’t worth it, and you need to throttle back, so you don’t get yourself or anyone else killed.

Courage is not about being a hero; it’s inside every one of us. When it really counts, you’ll find your motivation, manifest your courage and discover what you’re capable of doing.

Rich Emberlin is a 30-year law enforcement veteran who served most notably with the Dallas Police Department’s elite units, including Dallas SWAT, the Criminal Intelligence Unit and the Office of the Chief of Police. During his 15 years in SWAT, Rich participated in thousands of missions, including counter-terrorist operations, hostage rescues, barricaded suspect situations, and arrest and search warrant executions. As a detective in the Criminal Intelligence Unit, he was responsible for investigating protest groups and threats against government officials and police officers. Rich retired from the Dallas Police Department in 2016 and remains active in the industry as a law enforcement expert and instructor. He has appeared on shows including A&E Networks’ Live PD and Dallas SWAT, the Outdoor Channel’s Elite Tactical Unit and NRA-TV. Rich continues to serve his community as a reserve deputy for the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department.