Lessons From My Night With The Cops

Lessons From My Night With The Cops

What business leaders can learn from law enforcement.

Counseling a teenage girl after a suicide attempt. Saving a woman high on meth and alcohol from further danger. Arresting suspected shoplifters. Defusing a highly charged, potentially dangerous, domestic violence situation.

These are among the situations that I observed when I recently spent an afternoon and evening on a ride-along with my son, Brandon Sheffert, who is a police officer and SWAT team member for the city of Peoria, Arizona. It was a far cry from my typical day at the office!

It was a memorable experience for many reasons, but the most important takeaways for me were a profound appreciation for the sacrifices that public safety personnel make, an awareness of the bond that those in uniform share, plus several lessons that can be applied to business leadership. Let me explain:

Making time for communication makes everything else more productive. My son’s shift that day started at 2 p.m. at the daily briefing. It wasn’t exactly Hill Street Blues, but it was darn close. The sergeant led the discussion about the previous night’s incidents, including a review of a situation in which an officer was involved in a difficult fight and sent out an “officer needs assistance” call. I learned that meant every public safety officer in the nearby area responds, including those from other municipalities; so many officers responded that they were able to recall several others en route. During the briefing the officers teased the one in the fight about getting his “butt kicked,” but it was all in jest. The strong bond between fellow officers made a big impression on me, as I have rarely experienced that bond in a business meeting. It also was a lesson in how productivity can be improved with a short briefing to make sure everybody has up-to-the-minute information and is working from the same playbook.

Realize we’re all human. While riding in the passenger seat and observing officer interactions with difficult people, I realized that some people’s perceptions about insensitive, bullying police officers were dead wrong. Envision a police officer dressed in a black uniform, including a bullet-proof vest, wearing a weapon and a belt that weighs about 40 pounds, loaded down with Mace, a Taser, baton, handcuffs, and extra rounds of ammunition. Pretty intimidating, if you ask me! Yet when my son and other officers responded to a domestic violence situation and realized that the man acting violently probably should be in a mental health facility, not a jail, they used a gentle, reasoning tone to calm the situation. When a young girl attempted suicide, the officers stayed with her until social workers arrived and they knew she was safe. These situations, among others, demonstrated the value of applying common sense and compassion in crisis instead of overreacting, fixing blame, and living by rigid procedure.

Teamwork and coordination lead to success in achieving common goals. During the evening, we were the lead squad car responding to a shoplifting call at a major store. Answering the call before the shoplifters could get too far away, we encountered the car of one of the suspects, with four adults in it. Brandon pulled up behind the car, lights flashing, his weapon drawn, and yelled, “Put your hands on your heads!” (I stayed in the passenger seat as he got out, but have to say that my adrenaline was pumping.) Brandon had to tell them three times to put their hands on their heads, not knowing if they had hidden weapons in their car, but they eventually complied. Although back-up officers arrived within seconds, the situation was under control and they all knew what to do without discussion. Their quick decision-making and intuitive thinking would impress any business leader trying to improve coordination and teamwork.

Technology can be critical for solving problems. My ride-along occurred shortly after the Boston bombing, so I was particularly interested in learning more about technological tools in the hands of police. Now I have a firsthand appreciation for why the bombing suspects were caught so quickly. From technology in squad cars for communication and synchronization to electronic reporting and location tracking of every squad car’s move, I was secretly envious. I wish that every business could coordinate technology, both to provide information to solve problems and react quickly to changing situations. It was amazing.

Characteristics of top police are similar to those of good business leaders. At my invitation, my son and several colleagues took a short dinner break. It was purely selfish on my part; we had been going constantly, it was past 8 p.m., and I was hungry. But I had another motive. As an avid student of leadership, I wanted to use the time to ask them some in-depth questions about what they believed were the most important characteristics of a good police officer. My hypothesis is that good leaders are not profession-specific. That was borne out by their responses:

  • “You can’t be thin-skinned because you get called a lot of names and treated disrespectfully by many people—sometimes the very ones you are trying to help.”
  • “You have to be flexible and apply common sense instead of going strictly by the book 100 percent of the time, otherwise people would totally hate all cops.”
  • “You must be willing to give of yourself, to sacrifice and subordinate your own needs to help those in need.”
  • “You don’t have to be the smartest or the sharpest tool in the drawer, but having a good dose of street smarts and a keen intuition is essential.”
  • “You have to want to make a difference and take the initiative to create positive partnerships within the community, with individuals, businesses, and community organizations.”


These are all also characteristics of good business leaders, right? I expected that my ride-along would be interesting and a good opportunity to learn more about what my son’s typical “day at the office” is like. I didn’t expect the day to also provide so much good perspective about business leadership. Thanks again, Brandon, for letting your dad tag along, and for the service you and your fellow officers provide to your community.

Mark W. Sheffert mark@manchestercompanies.com is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.

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