The Boat Story

UnknownThe Boat Story

A top leader proposing a major organizational change to his or her command staff:

“We are about to cross a wide river and land at a new and unknown place. I want all of you to come with me, but I must let you know that the boat can only travel one time across the river. It will not be making a second trip. That’s why I want all of you to come on board with me now. I value you and your contributions to our organization. Even if you are unsure and not fully committed to the vision I have of where we are going, I need you to come with me. As we arrive and explore this new land, I assure you will become more comfortable with what I am asking of you. It is nothing I will not be doing, or willing to do, myself. I want you to know that am committed to helping, coaching, and teaching you so we all will be successful in this new place and way. I will not leave you hanging out. While I have a positive vision for our future together, I know it is a new and potentially difficult way and one that in the long run will make us a more effective organization. We no longer can stay here where we are today, we must move forward. But I need you to come with me—now. Will you come with me?”

The boat story is about an organizational transformation. It is very similar to what Jim Collins wrote in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t (2001). Collins used the image of a bus; getting the right people on it.  Like my boat, it was a way forward.

According to Collins, top leaders need to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off. The reluctance of subordinate leaders can be troubling for top leaders, but when a leader determines change needs to occur it will surely test his or her mettle and perseverance. Major organizational changes are not for timid leaders. Otherwise, we would have far more effective organizations in our society — including those in which police work. A command staff will often test the boss as to whether he or she will back off when reluctance is shown.

Top leaders must be able to articulate their vision — why they believe achieving  it is crucial for the organization and its customers; why the future of the organization is dependent upon these particular changes. A dialogue needs to occur, including the attempt to reach consensus before the top leader proceeds. But what if consensus doesn’t happen? What is a top leader to do?

When this happened to me, I sought help — and I sought it outside the police field. I had remembered meeting a top manager at a quality improvement training session a year or so earlier. He was a leader in a manufacturing business that had to make big changes in order to survive. I remember him saying that he had struggled with getting everyone’s buy-in. I gave him a call and went to visit him. I needed to know more about this story. What had he learned about overcoming top command resistance? What is the best way to do this?

He was extremely helpful. He told me that in his experience, if a top leader waited in any organization until everyone got on board, he or she would never get to where they needed to go. He learned that if 25 percent of his staff were willing to move forward he could successfully make the move within his organization.

At first that sounded dangerous. “Just 25 percent?” I queried, “Didn’t you need to have at least a majority?” I thought, would I dare leave behind those who had supported me in the past, but who were now reluctant to do so? And if I did, would I find new allies?

He told me, “You don’t leave them behind. You tell them you are leaving, going to a new place, because you intensely believe it is the right thing to do, and you want them to come with you.” And then he told me the boat story.

I went back home and when I determined that I had at least a quarter of my senior commanders on board, I gave the boat speech. I could tell it was very uncomfortable for some to hear, but for others it was a sign that I was really committed to the direction we were about to go. There was electricity in the air—invigorating for some, shocking for others.

Looking back, it was a stormy journey—but what my friend told me that day turned out to be excellent advice. And eventually, it all worked out.

Last week, I received a note from a police officer who had read Arrested Development and was following this blog. He asked me if I was still a chief today in a department experiencing the present crisis, what would my “boat story” be?

 imagesToday’s Boat Story

“Thank you for being here this morning and willing to listen to what I have learned from listening to all of you and talking to leaders in our community. I find that we are at a crisis point regard trust and support in our community. Some difficult decisions need to be made in order to restore trust and support from everyone we serve.

“Much of our positive work over the past decades with people of color is in jeopardy. They are asking us to stop killing them. That is a strong, stunning statement to hear given the work we have done within our city over the years – it hurts and, perhaps, it is not fair, but we must seek to understand it and to realize that we are only one part of what needs fixing in our city. But for that which we are responsible, we must fix it. And fix it now.

“The crisis in which we find ourselves surrounds our use of deadly force. We have recently had an officer involved shooting that many in our community are questioning. This situation has been amped-up by police actions, many caught on cellphone videos, from Ferguson to Baltimore. Almost everyday our community hears of a questionable police use of deadly force, makes a judgement about it even if it has not happened in our city. And now our community has asked us a chilling question, ‘When will you stop killing us?’

“We have been asked to review our use of force policy; a policy that has been in effect for many years without question and resulted in very few officer involved shootings. Nevertheless, we need now to rethink this policy, how it applies today, how we are training and leading our officers in the use of force, and especially understand the attitudes they hold about using deadly force. At the same time, we must more effectively communicate the excellent community relations work we do; especially with those who are most vulnerable.

“We must now publicly and strongly reinforce our respect for life – all lives — and that we are committed to using the least amount of force in carrying out our duties. We must emphasize that it is permissible for officers to do everything possible to avoid taking a life while, at the same time, making sure they are protected when they choose not to use deadly force. In the past, that is why we restricted high-speed pursuits, shooting at moving vehicles, required our officers to wear seat belts and body armor for their protection. We must be the force experts; able to slow things down, de-escalate, and use creative alternatives. Our commitment is to safe lives, not take them.

“What I am proposing has great implications for each one of us and our officers. I am going to urge our training team to look into best ways to do this; such as incorporating more intensive training scenarios, the most effective tactics existing today to slow things down, and conduct hands-on training to help officers make the right decisions and avoid taking a life.

This also means we must make sure our officers possess the right tools and are able to practice the best known methods that are available today. As one of the leading police departments in the nation, we need to share what we will learn with other departments. We are not only a learning organization, but one that teaches others as well.

“For example, Seattle police leaders, after signing a consent decree regarding, among other things, a finding of an excessive use of deadly force, have inserted the following narrative into their new use of force policy:

Seattle Policy Policy on Deadly Force (an excerpt)

Mitigating the immediacy of threat gives officers time to utilize extra resources, and increases time available to call more officers or specialty units. The number of officers on scene may increase the available force options and may increase the ability to reduce the overall force used.

Other examples include:

  • Placing barriers between an uncooperative subject and an officer.
  • Containing a threat.
  • Moving from a position that exposes officers to potential threats to a safer position.
  • Decreasing the exposure to potential threat by using:
    • Distance
    • Cover
    • Concealment
  • Communication from a safe position intended to gain the subject’s compliance, using:
    • Verbal persuasion
    • Advisements
    • Warnings
  • Avoidance of physical  confrontation,  unless  immediately necessary (for  example,  to  protect someone, or stop dangerous behavior)…


“Seattle and other departments under DOJ consent decrees are learning, but it is a hard way to learn. A better way is for us to work together to solve and fix this problem — perceived or not.

“Following Sept. 11, 2001, many people believe we have become more militarized and, thus, more willing to use deadly force in confrontations. Unfortunately, we know little about the data surrounding officer-involved shootings in our nation; who is being killed, and in what circumstances. The lack of data today cannot, however, keep us from making immediate  improvements in our operating systems in order to change the impression many have in our community have that these incidents are increasing and they increasingly involve unarmed black youth. This is not to be an ‘either/or’ situation. We are not to put officer safety below or above the safety of our citizens. All lives matter.

“But one thing we do know is that this perception has caused anger among our citizens of color as to what they see to be an increased police use of force against their children. We must effectively deal with this perception and present a solution.

“I need each and everyone of you to double-down with regard to community contacts and telling our story: We are a caring, capable, diverse police department that is committed to restraint in our use of force. We must not only say this, and say it strongly, but it must be followed up with the visible practice of restraint. In the past, restraint was not new to us or to our practices.

“Therefore, as leaders, we need to be out and among not only our officers, but community groups. We need to dialogue about how and when we use force; that we respect life and that all people are to be respected. Many of us are doing this now, but now we must do even more. We need to build better and bigger interactional networks.

“Furthermore, a warrior mentality has no place in our ranks. We are guardians, not warriors. We guard our citizen’s rights. We protect those who are most vulnerable – especially those who are poor, of color, young, disabled, addicted, or suffer from mental illness.

“As I said earlier, I am not suggesting our officers place themselves in danger – only that they are encouraged to use all of their skills in reducing occurrences of having to use deadly force.

“Let me emphasize this: I want our officers to know it is permissible for them to back off, to de-escalate, to take cover, to use other methods and instrumentality that will not result in a death. We do not have to stand our ground in all situations.

“In short, we need to take the moral high ground. Right now Graham v. Connor and ‘reasonable objectiveness’ have been interpreted by some police officers as “if I fear, therefore I can shoot!” This is not acceptable. Our citizens have a right to know we will set a higher bar of conduct.

“As senior officers, most of us have learned how to deal with fear and the inherent dangers in our work. We know what fear tastes like, but because we feel it, does not necessarily mean we have to let it control us. Competent, professional police officers keep their fear in check and perform their duties in a responsible manner and use deadly force only as a very last resort.

“As your chief, I need this understanding and commitment from you. I believe it is the only way we will be able to move forward and regain the trust and support of everyone in our city. I need you to be with me on this.

“We all know we cannot do good police work without the trust and support of everyone in our city. Otherwise, we will end up like some kind of Third World, third-rate, police department. We are much, much better than that.

“So, I need your commitment, your willingness to stand with me on this, and ramp-up our engagement with community groups, neighborhood associations, service clubs and other neighborhood residents in your districts – this includes groups like YGB. We need to share our vision, our mission, and our devotion with them as well.

“Are you willing to join me in this? Because I need you totally with me. We belong to the community. We are their police. And we can only do this if we all work together and hold up the traditions and values that have driven this department for the past 40 years. Our job as leaders is to fix things, and things need fixing.

“The healing also begins with us. It happens during each and every respectful and controlled interaction we have with our citizens from this day forward. Everyone, absolutely everyone, with no exceptions, must treat others with respect and fairness. And that means in our dealings with each other as well.

“And when officers have no choice but to take a life in order to save one we need to make sure they have the best care and support not only after the incident, but in the years to come during that officer’s career. When this happens we need to be out there, and honestly saying what happened. We also need to care for the family and loves ones of those who we have fatally interacted.

“Now I’d like to hear from each one of you as to what you think about what I have said. How do you see yourself responding, and how you will go about leading your teams forward? If you cannot or will not do this, I need to hear from you.

“I am, of course, interested in any additional things we should be doing that I have not already mentioned.

“Thank you for listening. Now I will sit down and listen.”


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