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The Leadership Beat: ‘I know work culture is everything’

Chief Kurt Holden discusses how the five pillars of a successful organization − people, policy, training, supervision and discipline – drive his decision-making process

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The following content is part of a new Police1 initiative – the Police Leader Playbook – aimed at helping new law enforcement leaders move beyond basic management and supervision skills and become inspirational leaders with integrity and passion. Through a handful of questions presented by Police1, veteran leaders reflect on their early days in leadership roles and offer advice, while newer leaders detail their experiences taking on a new position. Email editor@police1.com to offer your insights for the Police Leader Playbook.

Chief Kurt Holden serves as the Director/Chief of Public Safety of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He oversees 15 officers who serve a population of approximately 11,000 students, not including the many staff, faculty and visitors who come through campus daily.

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Director of Public Safety Chief Kurt Holden

Chief Holden is a two-time alumnus of Wright State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and a master’s degree in leadership development. Chief Holden began his career in 2009 at Wright State University and served on several units until being made chief in December 2021. In addition, Chief Holden serves as an adjunct instructor/faculty for criminal justice and leadership courses and has served as a public speaker and panel member for At-Risk Youth. He has a passion for community policing and community engagement, but his true passion is working with youth and finding solutions and equitable outcomes for foster youth. This passion comes from his time as a child where he was in foster care throughout his childhood until he aged out of care.

What was the incident or person in your career who put you on the path to becoming a chief?

The person or people in my career who put me on a path to becoming a chief would be my family. My family has always been my why in life and my support system, so when they told me to go for it, I knew I had the right people in my corner to take that next step.

What do you (or did you) want to accomplish, improve or make better in your first 30 days as chief, 6 months as chief and year as chief?
My goal as chief in the first 30 days was to get a pulse on the community and the department and see what we do well, what and where we can improve, and begin planning out how we can make some adjustments to better serve our community and come closer as a department.

In the first six months, we revamped our community policing model by creating all new programming and built collaborations with many units, groups and people in the community to support the mission of creating a safe community.

At our department, we worked hand-in-hand with many organizations, specifically, we worked with our Black Student Union organization and it was awesome to see them win organization of the year and send an invitation to our department to celebrate their success.

In one year, we accomplished a lot and have completed many projects from implementing body-worn cameras, new and updated policies and procedures, emergency operations plans, business continuity plans, a student safety advocate program, an in-service training program and many other projects that were long overdue, but we needed in order to become a department of excellence.

After 18 months, our department was awarded the Presidential Award of Excellence for Outstanding Unit, nominated by the president of the Black Student Union. This is a testament to relationships and being authentic in community policing and serving with excellence.

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Chief Holden (second from left) and other department leaders after they received the University’s 2023 President Award for Excellence for their work in the community.

How are you creating an organizational culture people want to be a part of?
I am creating a culture where people want to join and stay by using the philosophy of the “Moneyball” movie. I do not have the biggest budget and cannot offer all the bells and whistles many agencies use to attract talent, but I know work culture is everything. So, I have focused on being intentional in being there for officers, sergeants, captains and civilian staff, and finding ways to be there for not only them but their families as well. We built an officer wellness program that is focused on being there for one another.

Since then, we have not had to beat down academy doors for the next recruit, many times, they are knocking on our doors and it is a testament to the work of the entire department wanting to build a fun, safe and supportive culture that many want to join.

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Chief Holden, alongside the university’s executive leaders including the President, contributed $5,000 to the campus Food Pantry. The money was raised through a head-shaving event aimed at heightening awareness and garnering support for students grappling with food insecurity.

What’s your process for making major decisions?
The philosophy I use is based on the five pillars of a successful organization that I learned in a leadership course during my time as a young sergeant. I learned that people, policy, training, supervision and discipline are the keys to a successful organization.

Before implementing a decision, I first consider the people (department and community), whether the decision will impact policy (positive or negative), how the decision will impact training (is it needed and does it make us better), and if our leaders have the tools to carry out their job and properly supervise their teams, and will we be disciplined to carry out this initiative.

At each step, I try to see the pros and cons and how it impacts those pillars and then how it fits into our strategic plan as a department. I believe by doing so, you keep yourself accountable.

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Members of the police department and community at the campus Trunk-or-Treat event.

How do you show your personnel you are leading with value-based behaviors?
There is a quote I heard that says, “Choose the harder right, over the easier wrong.” Sadly, there are leaders in the profession who take the easier wrong in times of difficulty in hopes that whatever it is just passes by, but in this profession, the community and your department need you to be the strong leader to choose the harder right in difficult times, knowing that it is just and right. This is why I remind the team to do the right things, for the right reasons, the right way, at the right time.

Leadership lightning round

What is a leadership book, podcast or seminar you’ve found invaluable?

“Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek is truly spot on in its depiction of servant leadership and what people need in a leader.

How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule?

Calendar with multiple reminders. This is the only way or I would be a hot mess.

If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today?

Additional staffing, because it would allow for more safety services for the community and flexibility for our officers to take additional time to enjoy their lives outside of work.

What is one way leaders can show they care about their people?

Be intentional, authentic and available.

At the end of the workday, how do you recharge?

Spending time with my wife and kids. Whether that is walks, attending sporting events, watching TV, or making dinner together. Without them, I would not be chief or the person I am today. They are my why!

Access more Leadership Beat interviews here.

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