The Problem With “Loose Lips”

When you carry a gun and have power over people, you must be careful with your language.

Image result for wordsOne of the most important things I learned as a police chief was to be careful in what I said and how I said it. Maybe this came from my days in the Marines: “Loose lips sink ships.” Loose lips by police certainly can erode community trust and support; even instill fear and anxiety.

Contrary to what many people believe, men and women in the ranks do pay attention to what leaders say. I came to understand this during my career. But even more important, I realized how I behaved greatly influenced the community in our effort of moving from being merely an “acceptable” police department to being a great one which is nationally recognized.

Those of us who wear the organizational mantle of top leadership need to make sure we “walk our talk;” loose lips are dangerous to the success of any organizational effort.

What I see today is two groups of police chiefs: those who consider themselves the “top cop” of the police department who feel they must protect their officers from all public efforts to increase his or her officers’ accountability.

The other group is much smaller. It consists of top police leaders who not only see their role as protecting the police, but also embrace a role of being the city’s police chief – representing the interests, especially, of those who are most vulnerable or who cannot care for themselves.

  • Balancing the needs of the organization versus those of community is a difficult, but necessary, part of police leadership.

In the middle of my career I surveyed the leadership style of policing, I came to realize we were still in the industrial/military age – parroting the past in a coercive, top-down leadership style. If we were going to be able to get to where I wanted to go (that is to be a modern and professional police) we needed a change. When I surveyed the literature surrounding leadership I embraced what W. Edwards Deming, Tom Gordon, and Robert Greenleaf had to say about leaders and their leadership.

In Madison, through Dr. Deming, I came to understand our work as a system capable of being continuously improved. I also came to understand that only those on the receiving end of a service can evaluate one’s satisfaction with that service. Policing is a community service and if we were going to improve our service we needed to make some changes.

Coming out of that realization, we developed the following principles of police leadership which incorporated three vital areas: systems, leadership and teams.



  1. Improve SYSTEMS and examine processes before blaming people
  2. Have a CUSTOMER orientation and focus toward employees and citizens.
  3. Believe that the best way to improve the quality of work or service is to ASK and LISTEN to employees who are doing the work.
  4. Be committed to the PROBLEM-SOLVING process; use it and let DATA, not emotions, drive decisions.


  1. Be a FACILITATOR and COACH. Develop an OPEN atmosphere that encourages providing and accepting FEEDBACK
  2. Encourage CREATIVITY through RISK-TAKING and be tolerant of honest MISTAKES.
  3. Avoid top-down, POWER-ORIENTED decision-making whenever possible.
  4. Manage on the BEHAVIOR of 95% of employees and not on the 5% who cause problems. Deal with the 5% PROMPTLY and FAIRLY.


  1. Believe in, foster and support TEAMWORK
  2. With teamwork, develop with employees agreed-upon GOALS and a PLAN to achieve them.
  3. Seek employees INPUT before you make key decisions.
  4. Strive to develop mutual RESPECT and TRUST among employees; DRIVE OUT FEAR.

(You can find a discussion of the principles and some questions for leaders in The New Quality Leadership Workbook for Police.

In reading these principles, you should get the idea they are strongly related to, overall, improving the system in which people work, listening to one another and to the community, being respectful in both spheres, working together as a team, developing agreed-up goals and, and the vital understanding that the job of a leader is to help others grow and develop; to thrive. And the best way to do that is by example.

One of the things I am worried about today is the rhetorical tone of those who seek to be our leaders. I don’t know about you, but I find their words unacceptable. I would never allow anyone under my command to engage in such rhetoric. Why? Because it would be permitting behaviors that are not conducive to how we wish to be seen and operate. They do contribute to getting us to where we need to go.

Leaders must be generous listeners, emotionally balanced, and certainly not verbal bullies. A top leader must be patience, emotionally controlled, kind and compassionate to everyone in order to enable this behavior to resound within their organization and reflect into the community.

I learned these three powerful teachings from my mentors. They are as important today (perhaps more so) than they were over 30 years ago:

  • Information from employees decreases when coercion is used to accomplish organizational goals (Gordon).
  • To become a servant leader, you must first be able to serve others (Greenleaf).
  • Work occurs in a system, ask and listen to those who are doing the work as to how work can be improved. And drive fear out of the workplace (Deming).
  • Custody of one’s words matters. Your employees watch everything you do and listen to everything you say (experience).

When the leadership principle slisted above become part of your leadership style, chief, your job will not only be easier, but you will be much more effective in dong it.



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