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The Survival Mindset…For Your Career

The Survival Mindset…For Your Career

Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith

In any officer survival training class worth attending there will be lots of talk about your “mindset” and being mentally prepared for any encounter or confrontation you may face on the street. Every cop is aware that that police work can be a dangerous job, but a true survival mindset involves not merely being aware that something bad can happen, but being mentally and physically prepared for when something bad does happen. In the “Street Survival” seminar we call it WHEN/THEN thinking. But even if you’re the most tactically sound, physically superior, mentally ready crimefighter on your department, if you’re not also working on your “career survival” skills, you could be missing out. Here’s how to take that survival mindset and apply it to your career.

Start With a Career Self Assessment

Whether you’re a student, a cop, a dispatcher, a forensic technician, or the chief, ask yourself some questions. What do I want out of this job? What do I expect? What do I believe in? Do I have clear, attainable goals? Am I ready and willing to do what it takes to succeed, not just “survive?” Then ask yourself what does “success” mean to me? If you’re just starting to look for a law enforcement job, success might mean simply getting hired. If you’re a 5 year veteran on the local sheriff’s department, success might mean making sergeant, but if you’ve just finished your 25th year as a sergeant, success might mean retirement. In other words, your goals and your definition of success will undoubtedly change as you grow, gain experience, and become more familiar with this profession, your own organization, and with yourself. Make sure you define success according to your own beliefs, values, and goals. Don’t let society, the department, or even your family and friends tell you what personal success means to you. If everyone is pressuring you to take the sergeant’s exam but you’d prefer to remain a patrol officer, follow your own head and your own heart, define your career survival on your own terms.

How’s Your Attitude?

About 15 years ago I attended a leadership class taught by Lt. Jim Glennon, now one of my teaching partners at Calibre Press. Jim said something I have never forgotten: “Attitude is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” His message was extremely timely; I was an experienced cop but a new sergeant who thought my role was to challenge management at every turn. Because of my confrontational ways, I was frequently being told I had a “bad attitude.” Sound familiar? In officer survival training, we talk about not just surviving, but winning every encounter. When we talk about career survival, you may have to reframe your attitude and look at how you view a “win.” For example, if your department implements a faulty use of force policy and you argue with management, tell them they are clueless bureaucrats, and announce that you’re going to refuse to comply with their idiotic policy, is that going to be a career “win?” Not likely. However, how about if you can persuade them through solid research, real life anecdotal evidence, informal leadership and good communication skills to see things your way and change the policy? That’s what we call winning!

Understand What You Control…And What You Don’t

Cops are control freaks; and often, it’s with good reason. A big part of our job is controlling things, people, situations, environments, even ourselves. Where we get into trouble is when we fail to understand what we control and what we don’t. We don’t control the department, the administration, the court system, the community, or department politics. We can’t control how others react to us, how people treat us, what other people think and believe. We can try to influence them, inform them, persuade them, teach them, but we cannot control their thoughts and reactions. So what do we control? Us! We control our integrity, our work ethic, our belief system. We control our professionalism, our temper, our tone of voice, and how we react to people and to situations. Acceptance of this may require a significant shift in how you think, but it’s essential to your career survival mindset.

Develop Coping Skills

The law enforcement profession is full of trials and tribulation, and we deal with stress caused by everything from critical incidents to administrative frustration to family and financial issues. As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin talks about in his excellent book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, we have to develop appropriate coping skills. Dr. Gilmartin suggests tips like practicing aggressive personal time management and proactive scheduling, getting involved in physical fitness, and controlling the urge to engage in “retail therapy,” among other things. You also need to learn to forgive those who have wronged you, and you especially need to be able to forgive yourself when you make a mistake. To gain and maintain a winning mindset for coping with the stressors of police work, sometimes you just have to take one step at a time, work at being optimistic, manage your inner language, and above all, don’t be afraid to get help. Your police career isn’t going to survive if you’re not emotionally healthy.

Take Personal Responsibility

Just as effective officer survival training encourages officers to take responsibility for their own survival on the street, having a career survival mindset means you must be able to look in the mirror and recognize the one and only person who is responsible for your career survival. Many police professionals make the mistake of expecting the agency, the administration, or their supervisor to make or break their success. “Personal responsibility” means asking yourself what can I do to improve my skills, become more valuable as an employee, and make myself successful? You are the number one person responsible for your officer survival and your career survival. As Dave “J.D. Buck Savage” Smith says. “There Are No Privates in Police Work.” We are all trained and expected to make sound and courageous decisions on our own, every shift, every day. A career survival mindset means taking responsibility for your own career.

If you’ve chosen law enforcement as your future or current career you have chosen the warrior’s path. A true warrior doesn’t just know how to fight, a warrior also knows how to protect, how to be compassionate, how to serve, how to care, how to do the right thing. Develop your survival mindset so that you have a safe and successful career both on the street and in the station. Good luck

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