The Banality of Law Enforcement Leadership

Law enforcement leaders walk a fine line with municipal administrations. The average tenure of a chief of police is 2-3 years. They wear many hats, i.e. police manager, authority on the law, politician of sorts, representative of the municipality, representative of their rank and file, and unfortunately, whipping post for the local political leaders, community, and the local union. In my 40+ years that includes law enforcement, law enforcement management, law enforcement higher education, and law enforcement consulting I have run into a fair number of chiefs and sheriffs. Some are exceptional. Some are complete train wrecks. Some are train wrecks in the making. Many are unremarkable and therein lies the issue.

The structure of municipalities is such that it does not reward excellence, per se, as in the private sector. In my years in the private sector there is one all-encompassing truism, either produce or leave the organization. Move the organization forward, achieve or exceed your metrics, or find employment elsewhere. For the officer on the street, or the detective, or even the middle manager in law enforcement there is little incentive to achieve. The best one can hope for is adequate financial compensation that is typically on par with those who may not be good workers, getting advanced training that may lead to something else either within or without the organization, and the building of time on the job for a pension that may or may not be there depending what tap dance the legislature might do to stave off payment of millions of dollars to retirees.

The banality of leadership is an idea fostered by 1) keeping one’s job at all costs, and 2) maintaining the status quo. Build alliances. Don’t rock the boat in the department or in the local political waters. Build alliances. Be aware of landmines. Build alliances. Endear oneself to the political leaders, the community, and the rank and file. Build alliances. Get the point? A police chief told me, “If I did everything I needed to clean up the community I would first need to have a house cleaning and restructuring in the department. That would annoy the local political leaders. I wouldn’t last a year and then they would hire a ‘yes person’ from the inside. Welcome to my world.”

And so, the concept of banality or being mediocre is actually rewarded. The term status quo is the shortened mission statement. In spite of the rhetoric of police departments about community policing one can always go by the axiom you shall know them by their deeds. By the way, community policing is a philosophy and NOT a litany of programs like DARE, Neighborhood Watch, etc. Community policing empowers the officers on the street to do the problem solving themselves utilizing the department and other agencies as a resource. True community policing scares the daylights out of some chiefs who are essentially control freaks. Ask a local chief when the last time they did a double-blind photo array, or if they do them at all, and see what kind of response you might get, or better yet, ask how the concept works. Sometimes an impromptu pop quiz of simple police concepts is indicative the chief is spending too much time away from the department. Typically, this chief has underlings doing most of the work running the department with operations, administration, or both.

The point is that a good chief can be suppressed. Bad chiefs can have a longer tenure because it is embarrassing to a municipality to get rid of the albatross and start looking for someone new who can play ball and not annoy anyone or get into trouble. Mediocre chiefs can actually thrive because banality is key to their existence and survival. The exceptional leadership wisdom given to the rank and file by mediocre managers is usually, “Write your tickets, answer your calls, and don’t get into trouble.”

One final thought. We usually hire the best to be our police officers. Historically, only about 20% of police officers get promoted. The result is we have a glut of extremely talented and knowledgeable people who are basically going nowhere in their jobs. If they can pass a promotional exam or somehow endear themselves to those who can help elevate them there is a reward with an increase in pay and subsequent pension. Unless officers are somehow rewarded for their work the status quo will be perpetuated and contribute to the banality of police leadership.

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Deprogramming Narcissism

If there is one thing worse than a narcissistic leader it is an organization that follows his or her lead. The narcissistic leader easily infects others. The toxicity of just one person cannot be underestimated. Arrogance, self-centeredness, and self absorption can easily spread through the ranks like a wildfire.  What we have learned from the research of organizations is that individual narcissism does not happen overnight. In fact, it is years in the making.

In the formative years of childhood we teach our children the concept of sharing, getting along with others, encouraging each other through sports teams, etc. Over the years things tend to change for some individuals if not held in check. Certainly, excellence in school work and taking pride in one’s personal achievements are good things but when one hits the ground running in the world of work somehow pride becomes perverted to narcissism with behaviors that are usually learned early on. Ambition at all costs becomes the rule and an end justifies the means mentality dominates narcissistic thinking. Remember, to the narcissist anything or any behavior can be rationalized no matter what or who it costs.

To the corporate executive giving false information to shareholders is okay in the long run to maintain corporate stability through hard economic times.  The police chief targeting a union president for any internal investigation and discipline is “just doing his job” in his own eyes. A church directional leader falsifying attendance numbers, supporting a for profit entity with church donations, and establishing his own off shore accounts does so because he or she has a delusional self image of being a smart and savvy business person who needs affirmation like an addict needs drugs. The middle and upper management followers who support these types of people tend to mirror that thinking. This is an ancillary tragedy to narcissistic leadership.

The lists in private business, public service, and church world can go on an on with examples of narcissistic behaviors and leaders who are not only toxic but predatory as well. Once caught and fired, if not indicted, they tend to go on to a different area plying their skills elsewhere.  The sad part is they get ever more skillful at their craft. They get better at maneuvering finances, typically the life blood of most narcissists that goes along with the affirmation.

The question remains can narcissism be cured? As with any mental dysfunction the chances for successful deprogramming are greater the earlier it is detected, however, the true narcissist has worked on perfecting this dysfunction for decades. Nothing will happen overnight. Psychotherapy and ongoing counseling are the usual methods for treatment but narcissism is not only a mental issue it is a heart issue as well and therein lies the true challenge.

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Groupthink and the Effects of Organizational Narcissism

Groupthink tends to mirror individuals. The stronger personalities tend to influence the group. This is not necessarily saying the thinking of those with strong personalities is better or worse. It’s just a fact. The personalities and groupthink of our founding fathers was without a doubt vastly different than that of Nazi Germany but the strength of individual personality structures may have exhibited similarities with the influence it exerted as a whole.  We have to bear in mind that the typical organization has a dynamic flavor to it no matter how successful or not so successful it may be. As such, working organizations can be considered organisms, and thus, those who guide and lead exert a great deal of control. Interesting, there is a fine line between guiding and manipulating.

The best groups are instilled with a sense of pride, not only for the organization but with individuals themselves. If individuals are allowed to grow in their jobs then it logically follows the organization will benefit and also grow. Individuals can be proud of their goal achievements and this can be considered a healthy aspect of pride. That’s the good news.  Conversely, there can come a point where pride morphs into narcissism. Like a drug, an individual might think if some is good then a lot will be better. Pride becomes narcissism when the focus of the goals, stated or not,  becomes about personal or organizational aggrandizement.  Somehow, the word humility is eliminated from the vocabulary and narcissism, i.e. self-serving rather than self effacing, becomes the sole purpose for all activity.

In the private business sector it becomes less about customers or service than about profit at all costs. In public safety the focus is on personal or organizational marketing and how to look good in the media or among peers rather than emphasizing the improvement of quality of life within the community. In higher education it can be all about how a college campus competing with other campuses can beat another in its goals as opposed to acting in the best interests of its students with quality education and cost. In church world, it can be all about public image, no matter how inaccurate the information is given to media or attendees as opposed to the needs of the congregation or people intently seeking a personal relationship with God.

One final thought needs to be expanded upon concerning  narcissistic groupthink. In many cases individuals decide to leave their dysfunctional organism for whatever reason and are then cast by leadership as defective and needed to separate anyway. The implication that someone would voluntarily leave their highly dysfunctional heaven on earth and get employment elsewhere is a slap in the face to the group’s narcissism. Hence, anyone who leaves has a label or cloud attached, e.g. “Bob left because he knew he was worthless” or “So glad Terri is out of here. She screwed up almost everything given to here.” Get the picture? Scott Peck calls this type of groupthink “enemy creation” or “hatred of the out group.” In other words, this organizational attitude is, if you’re not with us you’re against us.

The antidote for organizational narcissism is a good dose of humility. This cannot be stressed enough. Humility, not only gives organizational healing but personal healing as well.  Unfortunately, sometimes organizational narcissism is so ingrained it’s like cancer and major surgery is needed to cut it out.

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Beyond Leadership: Church-Based Group Dysfunction

As a student of human interaction from the standpoints of public safety, i.e. criminality (assessing the actions of offenders, victims, and law enforcement) and that of the private sector primarily in higher education (managers, employees, stakeholders), and that of church world (church leaders, volunteers, and congregants) I have seen common behaviors of those who are exceptional and those who are not as exceptional. It’s not as difficult to assess an individual as having a particular dysfunction as it is for a group. Groupthink is more challenging as one is attempting an explanation for the whole acting as one.

Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie) does a fairly in depth study of the group mindset with the American Vietnam soldiers involved with the massacre at MyLai and attempting to answer how over 500 soldiers could have covered up such an atrocity with their silence for such a long time. Because of the nature and intimacy an individual typically has with his or her own spirituality I have done extensive research with the conditions in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Jim Jones cult mass murders in Guyana, and the David Koresh cult in Waco, Texas to assess the groupthink of such extreme groups and how organizations, especially church related organizations, can seduce the minds of usually clear minded individuals.

Unfortunately, there is a long list of church organizations that have been subjected to the same or similar type of dysfunctional leadership but have not resulted in the extreme circumstances mentioned. Why take a closer look at church leadership in particular and not the private business or public sectors? First and foremost, this one area strikes at the core of the one thing that is most sacred to many people. Whether that person is mildly or moderately religious or even not at all, but merely has an interest, makes them vulnerable.

I asked one former employee of a church that imploded due to its ineffective leadership and was on the brink of closing its doors for reorganization how a group of employees could be taken in for so long? Although the best answer is complex the employee could only speak to her own involvement before making the choice to leave. “We knew Satan had a hold on him (the leader) and probably had for a while. In the beginning he masked it well. Then, his self serving personality shone brightly. Talking about God on weekends on stage didn’t correlate with the loud arguments, yelling and screaming, and ‘F’ bombs in the back office. The scariest parts were his followers who thought he walked on water. Except for a few others whom I trusted I kept my feelings to myself and did my job and stayed out of his way.”

The common factor in circumstances like this is fear. Fear emanates from only one place and is not of God.  Fear is a fertile field for despair and giving up. Further, the groupthink in this situation for those who did the bidding of the church leader would exhibit what Scott Peck calls “psychological immaturity” growing out of their own narcissism and that of the highly dysfunctional leader. In the end, there is enough ownership to go around. Psychological immaturity fuels dysfunctional groupthink like gasoline on a fire.

Sadly, if and when reorganization does happen, many who did the bidding of the highly dysfunctional narcissistic leader remain. The best analogy would be ridding the world of Hitler and keeping in place Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler to now run the organization. The only logical choice is a total reorganization.

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Understanding Toxic Leadership: Looking at the Opening Page of the Narcissistic Leader’s Playbook

When we take a close look at the root cause of toxic leadership, more often than not, it is narcissism or one who is totally self absorbed.  Interesting, many times one might hear rhetoric from the narcissist giving accounts of how giving or self sacrificing he or she might be but the red flag is the fact the toxic leader feels compelled to advertise this in one way or another. Consider the hypothetical of a church directional leader who schedules a press conference announcing a new initiative or the results of a current initiative and then calling an “all hands on deck” (one of dozens called throughout the year) for staff to leave their duties to fill seats at the press conference and give the appearance to the media there is general community interest. On the surface it appears good things are happening but packing the audience with staff and taking staff away from their jobs serves no other purpose than to bolster the narcissistic ego.

We see narcissistic leadership on a daily basis in many organizations. Excessive ego or self absorption seems to be a common factor for many for those higher on the organizational ladder.  Consider the hypothetical situations of a college dean who refuses the hiring of a qualified faculty person because of a personal issue with the organization from which the potential faculty member comes or the refusal of a police chief to initiate an internal investigation because it involves his friends. Both of these serve as examples where the leadership is self absorbed and “doing the right thing” takes a back seat to self interest. We all have tendencies to look at circumstances from our own viewpoint, however, good critical thinking should kick in when deciding to take the higher road to do what is morally right in decisions that affect others within the organization.

The narcissist constantly seeks affirmation. Followers seek affirmation through the narcissist. It’s a very toxic relationship.  Some psychologists would suggest the narcissistic leader has failed in some way to regress and ascertain the origin of the low self esteem or the need to constantly seek affirmation. Subsequently, it makes sense for followers of a narcissistic leader to do the same.  Many times you will find alcohol, substance abuse, or other addictive behaviors generously interspersed with the middle or upper management staff who do the bidding for a narcissistic leader. By no means is church world exempt from having employees in elevated positions having addictive or dysfunctional behaviors. They, too, require affirmation but from the leader or even by virtue of being employed by the organization.

Typically, narcissism can be traced to some event or events in early childhood possibly involving parental expectations or behaviors.  The spouse of the narcissist has somehow managed to cope or adapt and even manifests behaviors similar to the dominant spouse and thus perpetuates the dysfunction in the family structure. Strangely, some of the offspring may readily identify the narcissism experienced at home with the parents and at some point face the choice of either accepting or rejecting the behavior as normal. Older children in the family tend to be all in or all out with accepting parental narcissism. Like any learned behavior narcissistic tendencies can be ingrained in the offspring if they themselves have not evolved with fully integrated personalities.  Family of origin issues can not be underestimated when looking at the root cause of narcissism.

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Why Individuals and Groups Rationalize Dysfunctional Behaviors

When individuals or groups submit themselves to a toxic leader with a narcissistic personality, whether they realize it or not, they have chosen to be a victim, usually unconsciously. In essence, their minds have been hijacked. This is not to say their free will has been destroyed or put on hold. Just the opposite is true. Like the frog in water being slowly heated to boiling temperature they have chosen thinking that defies rational logic and common sense. Their complacency and acceptance for what they are told is their downfall.  Get enough of these people together in the same organization and you have the infamous house of cards when the organization implodes.

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A Closer Look at the Narcissist and the Aftermath (Part 2 of 2)

After the narcissist is gone and the dust has settled it’s interesting to view the reactions of people the toxic leader affected. Like Nazi Germany in the mid to late 1940’s many of those who did the bidding of the narcissistic leader remain. Their commentary sometimes ranges from, “I was only doing my job and what I was told to do,” to “I knew he was a problem and secretly did things to sabotage him,” as if this makes their clandestine activity okay if it ever existed in the first place.  Then there are the stalwarts who think nothing was ever wrong. “He may have had some quirky things about him but nothing that warranted his removal.” Typically, these people developed a close relationship with the narcissistic leader and/or his family and may have reaped gifts or rewards in the process of the work relationship.

Denial is usually the driving factor for the malignant narcissist. On the way out the door there may be innuendos or implications of retribution on his part to get even. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, this happens in church world. God or submission to a higher power has little or nothing to do with damage control or healing. The once Camelot feeling of the church when it was doing well is now in the throes of people doing what they do best, i.e. submitting to their own will and ego.

There is more and more information being done regarding extreme narcissism but much work still needs to be done. Can narcissists be repaired? Yes but like the compulsive gambler, alcoholic, or drug addict narcissism is so engrained in the person’s psyche that intensive psychotherapy is usually the only route to take. Like any personality dysfunction the root causes are sometimes many and are complex with events and formation stemming back to early childhood years. More often than not, the deposed narcissist goes on to anticipated greener pastures or to an area many miles from the locale of the church. Further, during this regrouping the narcissist is always seeking the retribution that will validate his dysfunction in his own mind whether it’s starting a new or slightly different church organization/not for profit or attempting to cause internal havoc in the originating church from a distance. Once again, the malignant narcissist feels he’s normal and that’s the saddest part. In speaking to a psychologist once about an extremely narcissistic person who was brought to therapy the dysfunction was very evident. The subject gave a resume complete with references when confronted about behavioral issues, indicating I’ve done this, this and this, and you can ask so and so, so and so, and so and so. The subject was 60+ years of age. After the session, it was asked about the possibility for change to occur with therapy. The psychologist’s response was not encouraging. He simply replied, “The behavior is too far engrained. It will probably never happen.”

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