A Certain Chief: Moving from Assistant Chief to Chief
Jim McDonnell after being sworn in as Long Beach Police Chief. (Flikr; User: deergus)
Rarely is there a bigger distraction in a police organization than when there is a change at the top. That distraction begins when the rumors start to fly that the current chief is leaving and continues through the early weeks of the new chief’s tenure. The reason for the distraction is simple: uncertainty.
Fewer and fewer are the days when the number two person in the organization just assumes the chief’s role when the vacancy occurs. Even if the assistant chief ultimately becomes the chief, it likely will occur as a result of a competitive process.
Appointing authorities tend to want to show the community that the selection process was thorough and that the final selection was truly the best fit based on a fair evaluation of a pool of talented candidates. Sometimes this is done for show, sometimes for real; regardless, the time that it takes to name the new chief feeds the uncertainty. So whether you are ascending from assistant chief to chief from inside of the agency or from the outside, managing the uncertainty should be your priority.
Clarify Your Vision for the Agency
Ideally, the reason that you have been elevated to the chief’s position is not just your competency, but also your vision. Your competency is required for you to be able to effectively manage; your vision will allow you to effectively lead. Vision is often misunderstood, both for its purpose and for its power.
Many chiefs do not have an espoused vision statement, but that does not mean that they do not have a vision. Rather, their vision has to be deduced by the other members of the agency because it is not overtly stated. That weakens the vision’s power. When everyone in the agency understands the chief’s vision and their role in bringing that vision to fruition, the vision statement becomes much more than words, it becomes a document of influence. Your vision statement should have the following considerations:
• Agency-Focused. You are in charge of your police department, which is what you control. You do not control the community and you do not control crime. Yes, you can influence both through the way that you run the agency, but your true source of control – and what you are being held accountable for – is the police department. For that reason your vision statement should clearly define how your agency will be described as a result of your leadership.
• Future Oriented. A vision statement is not the same as a mission statement, although many agencies and their chiefs have confused the two. A mission statement describes the organization’s purpose, essentially the reason that the police department exists; it should clarify what the agency is seeking to do. A vision statement is the chief’s statement of how the organization will look at some undefined time in the future.
• Optimistic. One of the most important roles of every leader is to convey a sense of hope. The vision statement should be positive and inspiring while remaining realistic. Unrealistic vision statements are quickly exposed as such and therefore do not possess power. However, when the chief describes a future picture that is believable and desirable, those in the organization who will cause that vision to come to fruition can respond appropriately.