How to Sustain Excellence

imagesGet the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats…

When you have that, you can drive the bus anywhere.”

Jim Collins in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t

In building and sustaining trust and excellence by a police department the culture can either work FOR or AGAINST a leader. I knew that if I could hang on to my job long enough (to persevere) in Madison, I could change the culture of an somewhat isolated, all-white police department of which few had college degrees.

I knew that if I had TIME and could get the “right people onto the bus,” I could drive it to where the community wanted me to go.

My goal was clear form my first job interviews. A few months after my appointment, I had a key opportunity to share my ideas with the community about how I saw our “new police:”

I titled my talk “The First Seven Months and the Next Seven Years.”

In it, I attempted to set forth my vision for the police department— where Madison’s police needed to go… I knew I needed to lay out an exciting future with lots of enthusiasm on my part, then be able to convince Madison civic leaders and residents that I could deliver on it.

Two of my closest advisors in the community, Professors Remington and Goldstein, gave me wise advice: “David, this is a time when the community needs to know what will be lost if you are forced out and leave. You need to tell them now.”

I needed to get the community in synch with what I was trying to do. To get them to buy-in to my vision. So I laid out my vision of our future — three directions that I planned on taking the department:

  • Decentralize police services and develop neighborhood and team policing. The police department has been centralized since the mid-1800s. We need to get out of a centralized location and get closer to the people we served.
  • Build a people orientation—a sensitivity to, and understanding of human behavior. Recruiting high-quality, educated police officers and training everyone, especially those in leadership positions, about this broader role. Traditional policing responded to problems but was not interested in finding their cause. We would work with community members to prevent, diminish, and even eliminate crime and other community disorder.
  • Develop our capacity for conflict management and crisis intervention in addition to our traditional law enforcement. Reduce the acrimonious relationship that now exists between the police and students. After years of fighting about the war, new strategies and tactics needed to be taken to handle public protests by means other than tear gas and a nightstick.

This was where we needed to start heading now. But I went further and outlined a visionary goal for us seven years into the future. (I needed to do this to let the community know what they would most likely miss if I wasn’t around to lead the police department. I was, in fact, fighting for my life and my career…)

  • [Eight years from now] we should have successfully made the quantum leap necessary to field a behavior and human services expert which shall be known as a professional police officer… Police officers of the future will be human behavior experts as well as community workers… These future police officers will also have an advocacy role within our communities. They will identify government and social problems and solve them with the resources of the government and the community.” [See more about this process in “Arrested Development.]


  • Police subculture can be changed.
  • It can be changed by WHO you hire and HOW they are trained into the NEW subculture (think of Collins’ bus analogy).
  • Once the organization begins to move in a new direction, it can bring great benefits to the community in terms of officer visibility, problem-solving and connected-ness with citizens, and reduction in lawsuits against police.
  • This forward movement can be sustained over a period of time by strong, passionate, collaborative leaders who “walk their talk.”
  • Eventually a new culture of excellence and continuous improvement can emerge and be sustained into the future for the benefit of both citizens and police.


Over 40 years ago, when I took over command of the Madison (Wisc.) police department only ONE police officer of color was in the ranks (in a department of over 300 officers!). No women were uniformed and on patrol. The few women we had were assigned as “policewomen” and restricted to working with youth, could not carry a firearm, nor compete for promotion.

I know I had my work cut out for me and that it would take TIME if I was to transform this organization. It would not be your usual three years and off to lead another department (as had been the practice of many chiefs in my day).

It took nearly ten years to see the changes pay off.

When I retired over 20 years later, 25% of the department were women and 10% racial minorities. It was a long haul. Today, those numbers have even been exceeded. That’s sustainability!

But many experts within the field of organizational change note that once a change-leader leaves an organization, things quickly return to the “old ways.”


That has been the experience in Madison. The transformation was sustained.

Today, the department has 30% female officers in its ranks and 20% are racial minorities. THESE TWO FACTS MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD.

POLICE CHIEFS: How are you going to get the wrong people off your bus, the right people on, and in the right seats?




PLEASE CLICK HERE (to go to Survey Monkey) and answer a few short questions anonymously as to how this blog can serve you better. Thanks!


  1. Good article. My question is how do you conviince people to move up the ranks when there is too much politics particulary when you have to deal with politicans and business leaders/organizations who do not like an impartial, non-corrupt police department?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.