Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Policeman and the Poet

Leadership should be exciting. Leaders and followers should unite in a creative pursuit, each inspiring the other to perform miracles. When we witness such leadership we hear language which reflects that inspirational quality, language which touches our sense of humanity and which paints a picture of what might be if we just step out of the ordinary and the safe.

But that sense of excitement is all too rare, and the language of leadership is in a sorry state of affairs. Too often it is the sterile language of the sharp suited consultant, exhorting us to re-engineer our business processes to drive out efficiencies through leaner delivery mechanisms. What we really drive out is the passion and creativity of those we lead by constantly regurgitating the jargon of the management text book.

It’s something to do with emotion. Great leadership is an intensely emotional affair, and to be truly inspirational it has to come from the heart. We may be able to change minds through an appeal to the intellect, but we only inspire by revealing something of our deeper selves, by daring to be different in a world which demands conformity.

When I became a chief constable I knew that I wanted to demonstrate that style of leadership, but to be honest, it felt more than a little uncomfortable. We don’t do emotion, and we tend not to step outside of the orthodoxy. So stumbling across a short essay by George Goens entitled “Leadership and Poetry” was a defining moment. Even the title spoke to me, and George’s message that “leaders should write organisational poetry” inspired me to be braver. Not only had I found someone who wrote about leadership as I intuitively felt it should be, but he also wrote about it beautifully.

George uses the metaphor of leader as poet to illustrate the true nature of the leadership role. Not a role to be defined by measurement, systems and process, but rather one to be defined by an exploration of the human condition, where we find purpose and meaning through creative relationships. It is a powerful and inspirational message.

But it’s a bit daunting to tell a roomful of police officers that you want them to be organisational poets. The Service is not by nature introspective. Nor are police officers generally comfortable with the expression of emotion or the exploration of values. What worries me most is that as the financial climate gets tougher, the space for that discussion gets squeezed even harder, just when we need it most.

So I have tried. I have tried to speak from and to the heart and I have encouraged others to do the same. I have tried to use words and to tell stories which resonate with the values and beliefs which brought people into the Service but which sometimes get smothered by the cynicism that policing can breed. Most of all I have tried to celebrate public service as a noble calling and I have tried to make the people I lead proud to have answered that call.

Thank you George for helping me to write my own bit of organisational poetry.

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