Seven Secrets to Success From An Unlikely Source

By Joe Couto

Published January 21, 2015

There is a lot of talk in policing circles about leadership these days. Police leaders invest time and resources attending conferences and participating in associations such as the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) in order to learn andshare best practices on effective leadership in today’s changing policing landscape. Former police leaders position themselves as “leadership experts” in post-policing careers.

More important than “talking leadership” is actually dealing with the day-to-day challenges that all police leaders face. And challenges they are.

Recently, as I considered what might be the secrets to success for police leaders, I found myself actually going back in time to a very unlikely source: Ulysses S. Grant. The hugely successful American Civil War General and somewhat less successful 18thPresident of the United States may seem a curious choice for a model of leadership for Canadian police leaders today. After all, Grant was a military leader and then politician in a completely different era than our own. He also operated in a political system unlike our own British-based one. Still, I believe that Grant has a lot to offer today’s police leaders.

First, citizens in the 21st century understand that national boundaries are fluid. Political systems my function differently, but their fundamental goals are often very similar. So looking outside our own political and cultural “comfort zones” is often a good thing. Furthermore, we all know that failing to learn from the past invites us to make the same old mistakes.

Secondly, I believe Grant had a lot in common with many of today’s police leader. A more successful military leader than politician, Grant was a rather unassuming man thrust into circumstances he never wished for because of his natural leadership abilities. Today’s police leaders are often “cops first” who never seek the political spotlight. Most certainly did not wish for the issues that need to be tackled before they undermine the very validity of their organizations: eternal fights over police costs; an underfunded mental health system that pushes individuals into often tragic interaction with police; oversight bodies that range from blatantly anti-police to blissfully ignorant of policing realities; political inertia when it comes to legislative/regulatory changes to law governing policing; the undermining of public confidence in police organizations by political and other entities who wish to paint police as the peoples’ enemy rather than their servants, etc.

Writing in the January 2015 issue of America’s Civil War magazine, writer Jim Stickney identified seven traits that allowed a shy man with few accomplishments prior to the Civil War to become the “paragon of soldierly form and virtue.” After reading the article, I wondered whether Grant’s “seven traits” might be applicable to today’s police leader. Let’s find out:

Centred Character – According to Stickney, Ulysses S. Grant was solid, low maintenance, and utterly trustworthy. Political masters, colleagues, and subordinates all agreed on his forthright manner, stark honest, and good judgement. In Grant, there were no extremes or rough edges: shy but not coy; pleasant and affable, but not gregarious; dignified but not aloof; self-confident but not sanctimonious; purposeful but not ambitious; sensitive but not sentimental. In other words, people could count on Grant not simply following the latest trend. Key Leadership Point: People should be able to depend, learn from, and follow leaders because of their steady and inspiring character.

Command and Control – Grant believed that “when in command, command”. He gave consistent orders and recognition, was a master of adapting to circumstances and rode momentum to success after success. He was known to be a good listener who respected his colleagues but kept his own counsel and made decisions in an esoteric fashion. Key Leadership Point: Leaders inspire and support people. They have a clear vision. They should be someone people want to follow because their basic character is known, counted on, and admired.

Common Sense – Grant had a clear, sharp, and intuitive mind and was quick on his feet. He didn’t dwell on failures but moved on to fix things quickly and effectively. He did this because he was a realist who based his decisions on common sense, not the latest fade or theory. Key Leadership Point: a leader depends on knowing and doing the right thing based on facts.

Frank Communication – Grant was direct, composed, reserved, and utterly clear in the way he communicated with people. Whether his audience was the President of the United States, the press, common soldiers, or common citizens, he spoke plainly without hyperbole or “spin”. Key Leadership Point: a leader communicates facts and respects every audience by addressing them directly in an honest manner.

Nurtured Confidence – Grant was able to help himself and other overcame doubts and allayed fears during tough times. His optimism and “simple faith in success” were contagious. As a military leader, this inspired people and contributed to success. But as a politician and later a businessman, Grant’s trusting nature actually worked against him as corrupt subordinates undermined his Presidency and bad business associates ruined him financially. Key Leadership Point: Nurturing confidence in others can lead to success but a leader must also hold people accountable and not be afraid of calling friends, and colleagues to account.

Cumulative Courage – A soldier once remarked that, “Ulysses don’t scare worth a damn!” Grant was known for his physical courage while in the field and moral courage by being willing to step outside his own natural boundaries and into danger for a higher purpose. At the end of his life, he endured the physical pain of cancer but rejected drugs in order to stay lucid and write memories that lifted his family out of poverty. Key Leadership Point: Being a leader requires constant courage that is always in display for all to see and emulate.

Conviction to the Cause – One of the greatest military minds in American history, Grant was a man on a mission. Not only did he believe in the Union cause during the war, he also proved himself to be a champion of the oppressed – particularly of Black Americans and First Nations people – knowing that his ethical stance for the oppressed made him powerful enemies. Key Leadership Point: A leader is committed to a cause, in good times and bad times, no matter the personal consequences.

Close Companions – Grant was a quiet, even shy man who did not seek the limelight. His two closest companions were his wife Julia and his Adjutant John Rawlings. During the war, Grant chose a small group of military advisors to advise him. He listened to them because he trusted them, but he made his decisions on his own and took full responsibility. Unfortunately for Grant, this trait seemed to wane when he went into politics. Key Leadership Point: A leader keeps wise counsel, listens well, but makes up his or her mind.

Police leaders today face unprecedented challenges. The successful police leader stands out because of the very evident character traits he or she demonstrates.  Some people believe that a Chief of Police is really a politician of sorts. There is some truth in that. Chiefs need to be able to engage with elected and government leaders and agencies effectively on their “political” turf. But as U.S. Grant found out, it is very difficult to go from a military (in the case of police, paramilitary) realm into the political realm and succeed. Still, what every successful police leader demonstrates is above average political astuteness.

Grant’s life and career teaches us important lessons about leadership, particularly as public servants. Above all, a leader’s character ultimately drives him or her in good times and bad.