Learning from the past and looking to the future

Editor's Note: We welcome to our roster of writers Brian Willis, who began his law enforcement career with the Calgary Police Service in 1979. Brian's debut column is the latest in our collection of year-end articles that look to the past in order to prepare for what the future holds for law enforcement officers. We've already presented columns from Dan MarcouDick Fairburn, Ken Wallentine, and Eddie Reyes — if you've missed those, be sure to check them out.

“Some of us learn from other people’s mistakes and the rest of us have to be other people.”
— Zig Ziglar

The end of each year is a natural moment of reflection, and 2009 is no different. I’ve seen several articles here on Police1 and elsewhere which take lessons from the past and apply that knowledge to the year (and years) to come. As I read them I’m reminded of a question I’ve been asking experienced law enforcement professionals from across North America and the UK for some time now: “What would be one thing you know now that you wished you knew at the start of your career?”

A question I’ve been asking experienced law enforcement professionals from across North America and the UK is: “What would be one thing you know now that you wish you knew at the start of your career?” In fact, it’s a question I’ve had asked of me and one I ask of myself. Police1 has selected me to write a series of columns about the responses I’ve gotten, as well as some of my own answers to the question, “If I knew then...” 

Tell me your story — send me an e-mail at brian.willis@policeone.com. Meanwhile, here is my debut column: “What’s Important Now.”

What’s Important Now?
As I look back to when I began my law enforcement career at the academy to career I realize how much I have learned and how much I still have to learn. For the past 30 years it has been an honor to work in one of the greatest professions in the world and during that time I have worked with, trained with, and met some great professionals and true heroes. I continue having the privilege of training law enforcement trainers as well as speaking to police recruits (some of whom were not yet born when I started the academy in 1979) about the importance of mental preparation and conditioning. It’s during a recruit’s time in the academy that the seeds of the profession are planted. These are the seeds that will influence the next 25 to 30 years of these men and women’s personal and professional lives.

As I reflect on these past 30 years I have come to the realization that there are so many things that I know now that I wish I knew when I started in the profession. In this series of articles I will share some of my thoughts on these lessons learned. These are not war stories but rather key concepts, principles, and philosophies that may have influenced the outcome in the stories.

The challenge is that there are so many things I wish I had known that it is difficult to know where to start. I have decided to begin with the philosophy of W.I.N., a simple but powerful acronym for what I truly believe is life’s most powerful question:

What’s Important Now?

I borrowed this philosophy from Lou Holtz, the famous Notre Dame football coach. He would remind his players to ask themselves this question 35 times a day: when they awakened in the morning, in class and study hall, in the weight room, on the practice field, on the sidelines during a game, and when on the field during games.

As law enforcement professionals we need to take a lesson from Lou Holtz and ask ourselves this same question 35, 40, 50 times a day. Every day, in our personal and professional lives, we are faced with a number of choices and decisions — some more critical than others. Our responses to those choices (the decisions we make) can have a lasting impact on our health, relationships, careers and finances. If we are to achieve excellence in our lives we must constantly ask ourselves “What’s Important Now? Doing so forces us to focus on what is important and in the field it allows us to prioritize tasks and threats and to take the actions necessary to safely and effectively win each confrontation.

The problem for many of us at the start of our career however, is that we fail to understand the power of asking ourselves this question. As a result we often fail to prioritize the decisions we face.

What I have come to realize over the years is that this simple but powerful question has the potential to positively influence every aspect of our personal and professional life. Every day we are faced with choices. Choices about:

• How we treat people in the field
• How we treat the people that are closest to us
• What we make a priority in our life
• Who we make a priority in our life
• Who we choose as role models and mentors
• How we choose to spend our spare time
• What priority we put on fitness and nutrition
• What priority we put on proper sleep patterns
• What priority we put on relationships outside the job
• What priority we put on active learning
• What priority we put on training
• What priority we put on tactics
• Whether or not we wear body armor to work every day
• Developing support structures to help us deal with the tough calls and the tough times
• Seeking help instead of keeping to ourselves when something we experience as law enforcement professionals bothers us
• Fighting or walking away
• Whether or not to chase
• A driver’s side or passenger side approach
• Going for a beer after work with ‘the boys’ or going home and spending time with the family
• Maintaining friendships outside the job, or only hanging out with other cops
• Whether to contain and negotiate or penetrate and confront
• Waiting for more resources or going with what I have now
• Doing what is right versus what is popular
• Doing what is right versus what is expedient
• Taking 10 minutes a day to train skills and tactics or only training when the department mandates it
• Rushing in to make the arrest versus waiting until I have sufficient backup
• Terminating the pursuit versus staying in it
• A foot chase versus a foot-surveillance
• Do I talk or fight?
• Using empty hand or intermediate weapon control
• Penetrating the gap or disengaging
• Shoot or don’t shoot

When I ask myself: “What would be one thing you know now that you wish you knew at the start of your career?” the answer I come up with is the concept of What’s Important Now?

If I had understood the power of that one question much earlier in my life it would have helped me make better decisions over the course of my life and my career. That one question would have helped me a better father, a better son, a better husband, a better cop, and a better trainer. That is why I believe it is life’s most powerful question and why I now build it into every presentation I deliver. That is why I have developed W.I.N. wristbands and have distributed over 6000 of them around North America to date.

As you go throughout your day, your career, and your life, let the question “What’s Important Now” guide your decisions and actions. 

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