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Why ‘taking out the trash’ is key to effective leadership

Every police leader’s to-do list should feature things leaders know they don’t have to do but do them anyway


In addition to emptying trashcans, “taking out the trash” has a deeper meaning as well.

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I work for a large agency who uses a service to clean our building. Several times a week the cleaning crew comes, empties the trashcans, cleans the bathrooms and mops the floors.

As the COVID numbers increased in Louisiana, this service was discontinued. No one told me it was discontinued, but one day I was in the kitchen making coffee and noticed the trash was overflowing onto the floor. I assumed that the night shift must have had a shift meeting (always blame the nightshift) until I saw all the cans around the station were full.

I could have ordered someone to empty the cans. I could have asked the lieutenants why they allowed their shifts to make such a mess. I did not do either of those things. I just grabbed a can and took out the trash. I am happy to report that our cleaning service has returned, but I propose we all take out the trash even when we do not have to.

In addition to emptying trashcans, “taking out the trash” has a deeper meaning as well. It means knowing the things you do not have to do but doing them anyway. In each position I have held during my career, there were different benefits.

When I was a sergeant, it was not likely I would have to sit with a prisoner at the hospital for an entire shift. As a lieutenant, it was not likely I would be expected to make traffic stops. Now, as a captain, I do not have to make traffic stops or wear my uniform every day. Despite that, I regularly make traffic stops and wear my uniform nearly every day.

Here are a few more ways police leaders can “take out the trash”:

1. Do as I do

As a leader, you should be held to a higher standard than your officers. For example, if while driving to work you hear your officers are standing on a perimeter searching for an armed subject, go help them. Some may disagree that a high-level police official shouldn’t be holding a position on a perimeter. Why not? I am reasonably sure every agency in this country is shorthanded. Your folks could use your help, and you will show you support them. Remember, the shiny stuff on your shoulders may be different than when you first started, but I bet that patch on your sleeve still says the same thing.

2. Wear your body armor

My agency requires everyone assigned in an enforcement capacity to wear their body armor when in uniform. I take a literal approach to that policy and require everyone to wear their body armor regardless of their assignment. After all, we are all empowered with the ability to enforce the law. What do you think would happen if I required everyone to wear their body armor and they noticed I didn’t wear mine? They would look at me as if I was a hypocrite and they would be right. Require your folks to wear their body armor and make sure you do the same.

3. Take care of your people

I would never suggest that leaders should take care of their employees when they have broken the law or committed a major policy violation. When I say, take care of your people, I mean actually care for them. Talk to your officers. Ask them questions and care about their responses. Wish them a happy birthday. Celebrate their important dates. Lend them a shoulder when they need one. When officers know their leaders care about them, they perform to a higher standard and work harder to serve the community.

4. Forget the next position

Too often leaders are focused on doing the things they think will lead to their next promotion. Focusing on your next promotion means you will be less likely to stand up for your officers or be willing to take risks when making decisions. Do the best you can in your current role, and you will be better prepared when the next position becomes available.

5. Be available

Once you reach a certain position your schedule has likely changed to weekdays and daytime only. For me, the late-night phone calls usually start with “sorry to bother you.” Make sure your people know that you are never bothered by those calls. It is unlikely that you were forced to take your current position. You asked for it. Remember that with the job comes the need to be available to your people. Want to really show them you are available? When they are scheduled to work a special event or training on the weekend, go meet them. Sure, giving up a weekend day is tough, but trust me, they will appreciate you being there because it shows you care.

As leaders, the men and women who work for us pay very close attention to what we do. The old mantra of do as I say, not as I do is how poor leaders run their shop. I encourage you to lead by example and take out the trash.

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Lyons Hale has been a sworn police officer since 1998 and currently holds the rank of captain. He has worked in a patrol capacity for most of his career and leads Louisiana’s statewide crisis negotiation team. He is also the co-founder of Juliet Lima Solutions, a law enforcement and private industry training and consulting company that offers leadership, de-escalation and emotional intelligence training. Learn more here.