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Saturday, November 21, 2020

Leadership is about Disappointing People at the Rate They Can Absorb

I went to Harvard. That statement is true(ish) because I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks attending the Harvard Kennedy School of Government “Executives in State and Local Government” program. But I still love saying I went to Harvard and pausing before I say…. for three weeks. It was the most academic of the training I've ever attended and I left there with my mind blown beyond its original dimensions.

The reason it was so good was because the instructors didn't allow you to give a canned answer and then move onto the next person. And, unlike most classrooms, they didn't wait for you to raise your hand. The notion that you could be called upon at any moment to offer your opinion about a discussion or an assigned reading meant that we were all at the ready. 

One instructor in particular was terrifying. Marty Linsky would stand in front of the large audience and toss out a cerebral question and when he scanned the room, I found he normally chose the person to call upon who was attempting to avoid eye contact. I was never that person because I always have something to say and I'm not usually afraid to say it. But this was different. After someone made a comment, Professor Linsky would gaze at you and press harder. “Why did you answer the question in that way?” Or “What did you mean by that?” Or perhaps, “Why have you come to that conclusion?”.

I'm usually good for about one answer that makes me appear of average intelligence but the more he dug deeper, the more my classmates and I struggled to answer the question. We would often become flustered but he remained relentless in his pursuit of the “why”. In the moment, I wanted to punch him in the throat but now that I am able to see clearly, he was doing what so many people fail to do – dig deeper for meaning.

I can regurgitate talking points that I've heard from a news correspondent or from a colleague and even feel strongly in alignment with those opinions. But when you start asking seemingly simple follow-up questions, most people can't go beyond their canned answers. It forces you to dig deeper and when you've hit the bottom, most people find that they know very little about a particular topic. 

Marty changed me. He made me do research to support my position and my greatest motivation was not to look foolish in class. Fortunately, that lesson has transcended outside of the classroom and I have learned to carefully construct my position based on facts. I have also learned to challenge my own position. That's my biggest take-away. When he forced us to peel away the layers after parroting an answer, it actually caused some of us to change the way we looked at something on which we once felt immovable. 

But the day Marty literally blew my mind was when he spanned his gaze at all of us and he uttered these words:

“Leadership is about disappointing people at the rate they can absorb.”

What the hell does that mean? He saw the confusion on everyone's face and he repeated the same phrase as though the repetition would be cause for enlightenment.

“Leadership is about disappointing people at the rate they can absorb.” 

Nope. Still nothing, Marty. Leadership is inspiring people to align with a vision. It's about taking people where they need to go but otherwise wouldn't. It's about setting clear goals for your people and getting work done through others. Great leaders do the opposite of disappointing people. Dammit Marty Linsky, YOU HAVE LOST YOUR MIND. 

I went to Harvard in 2011 and on February 1, 2017, I was sitting at my desk reflecting upon several decisions that I'd made during my one year as the Chief of Police in the 2nd largest city in the State of Illinois and it hit me. Sitting alone in my office, the lightbulb went on and I got it. I freaking got it! I wanted to call Marty to tell him that I finally understood what he meant. When you are the top person in an organization, you can no longer point to someone above you and shift responsibility. That means that every decision is yours and yours alone and even if you've collected other opinions and data and made an informed decision, it's still not going to please everyone.

Even with the best of intentions, a leader is going to upset someone. Whether it be through a policy decision, a choice for promotion, or administering discipline, leaders disappoint people. Even when attempting to implement something new and big that will change an organization for the better, people resist because it's different than what they are used to. People are creatures of habit and they don't particularly like to be forced out of their comfort zones and when their environment shifts, they stand their ground in defense of it.

I had only been the chief for one year in my organization when I became conscious of all the people I had already disappointed. Even though I believed I could see things so clearly that needed to be changed or people that needed to be disciplined, others did not agree. 

Marty was right. Being a leader who actually transforms an organization invariably means that some people are going to get left behind. It also means that you have to find the precise amount of transformation because people who walk in and decide to scrap everything are making a mistake. Every organization has a lot of wonderful in it and those things should be left exactly as they are. But the things that need to be changed should be changed even if it means that people are disappointed in the process. I have found that it's the transitional part of change that people cannot tolerate. But once you get through the part of change that's uncomfortable and you get to the other side, people are appreciative and even wonder why we didn't do it sooner. 

So carry on in disappointing people but make sure it's at the rate they can absorb.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Resisting Suffocation is not Resisting Arrest

Message to the citizens of Aurora:

When I first watched the video of the Minneapolis officer, I didn’t need to wait for more information to come in. I didn’t need to wait for the investigation to conclude before I made an assessment. When you place your knee on the neck of a human being for over eight minutes – a human being who is handcuffed and pleading that he can’t breathe – there is no defense. George Floyd is a human being.

To those who have said he was resisting: Resisting suffocation is not resisting arrest.

People of color are outraged. White people are outraged. Any cop who doesn’t feel the same should get out of our profession.

I awoke this morning to learn that a Minneapolis police precinct burned the to the ground.
Then I learned that the window of an Aurora Police Department squad car had been smashed out.

We cannot control what is happening around us, but we can turn to our own corner of the world and ensure that the culture in the Aurora Police Department is in alignment with valuing human life and the constitution.

The Training Division at APD focuses on scenario-based training and in every exercise, de-escalation is the first tactic. We include implicit bias training as part of our curriculum because we understand that what makes Aurora beautiful is our diversity.

We have created a culture at APD where we stand with our officers when they are right and we part with them when they are wrong. We are not perfect and we make mistakes, but we police each other at every rank and we swiftly and thoroughly investigate any allegations of wrong-doing with transparency. Accountability builds professionalism.

I see many chiefs sending out messages to their officers with a stern message about use of force. I want to do the opposite. I want to take this opportunity to thank every police officer in our city who acts with nobility and honors our sacred oath. I am so grateful to them for the professionalism and compassion that they display every day in the city of Aurora. The men and women in blue who serve our community are the best in the nation and I am saddened that they will be painted with a broad brush. But they understand that they represent all police officers and they shoulder that responsibility.

Finally, I am grateful for our Aurora citizens who support us. We vow to you that even in these trying times, we will remain loyal to you and our fellow man. It’s up to each and every one of us to keep our city safe.

Please stand with your Aurora Police Department because there is no us.
There is no them.
There is only we.


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Be Comfortable with Making Others Uncomfortable

Throughout my career, I have been underestimated. From the moment I earned my badge, I’d show up on a call and people would say, “you’re too little to be a cop” or “do they let you ride by yourself in a squad car?” As I moved up the ranks, I was often asked, “Do those men follow you?” I have learned to shrug it off or retort with a witty comeback. I never got angry because I tried to respect the templates for which those people saw the world that made them doubt me. It made me try harder to disprove their world view.

When Chief Greg Thomas called me into his office to tell me he was appointing me to Commander, I looked behind me to make sure he was talking to me. I verified he was and he went on to explain his expectations for my new position and then asked if I had any questions. I took that opportunity to inquire if he had any reservations about choosing me. He looked at me with honest eyes and said, “yes”. He said by promoting me, he would be promoting the person with the least experience. He would be promoting the youngest person to have ever been promoted to the position. He worried that I wasn’t ready. He worried that choosing me was a risk. When I looked at this decision from his viewpoint, I understood his trepidation. He could have gone with the safe bet. He could have chosen the person who looked like every other person who has lead our police department. He could have picked a calm and steady presence with years of experience versus the loudmouth girl who doesn’t fit the stereotype of a cop let alone a leader of cops. 

But he chose me. He said he did so because I scored one of the highest on the assessment the candidates went through. He said he knew I was a student of leadership and he believed that meant I would make it a priority for our department. He said he was more willing to take a risk on me rather than doing what has always been done. For him, staying the same was the bigger risk.

I never forgot the uncertainty in his eyes and I used that to spend every moment earning the position he gave me. I was determined to prove to him that he made the right choice and I know I ultimately made him proud. 

When I was appointed chief of police by Mayor Tom Weisner, he observed out loud that my resume ran circles around the other candidates. He offered that I had proven myself as a commander but he did tell me that he was apprehensive about my “personality". All of the candidates had to take an assessment and he said I came back as a “risk-taker”. He told me I might need to write fewer blog posts because I was a bit too opinionated. I laughed and didn’t deny that part of my personality because it’s who I am. I appreciated him for being a little afraid of me. But he gave me a chance.

Once again, determined to prove to him that he made the right choice, I made it my mission to succeed. I picked team members who thought differently than me to be a part of my command staff. I chose people who possessed qualities that I lacked but who shared the same passion for leading others. And as a team, we changed things for the better. We were unafraid to implement new and better processes and to make difficult personnel decisions because we all understood that to make a change, we had to be bold. 

I learned from Professor Marty Linsky while attending the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University that “leadership is about disappointing people at the rate they can absorb”. I thought that statement was absurd when I first heard it while sitting in his class. It wasn’t until I became the chief and was met with resistance at every change that I began to understand what he meant. People hate change. What I came to understand is that it’s not so much the change that is painful. Instead, it's that space before change happens that is painful. The only way to get to the other side is to go through it and I soon became comfortable with disappointing people on the way to changing things. 

If you are comfortable with making others uncomfortable, you can transform an organization. At my swearing-in as chief, I made a promise to the police officers in my department that I would ask myself three questions before making a decision: 1) Am I doing the right thing, 2) at the right time, and 3) for the right reasons? I vowed that if I ever answered “no” to any of those questions, I would not proceed. But if the answer was affirmative to all, I would move forward unapologetically. 

And that’s how we transformed our police department. As a result, our officers have reduced crime while building relationships with our citizens. We have added technology that has brought us to a “smart city” status and we have unleashed the talent and compassion of our officers. We have committed to relentless training so our officers are prepared on the street and make wise decisions. 

My biggest take away from being the chief has been that we can build a culture of police officers who are compassionate and empathic guardians of our city while simultaneously building warriors who run towards horrific things that no one else will. Every day, these officers respond to violence that puts them in harm's way, and presently, they are showing up and protecting our city during a pandemic and risking their own health to do it.

The pride I feel for them has never been higher and as I contemplate how I got lucky enough to serve this city and this department, I realize it all comes back to that one person who gave me a chance. I am privileged to be in the position I’m in and the only way I can pay back those like my chief and my mayor is to be willing to upset an ecosystem.

Sometimes we need to blow up the template of what we’ve always done to begin a transformation. And that might mean making others uncomfortable in the process. 

Do it anyway.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

What is this Pandemic Trying to Teach Us?

Life as we know it has stopped.

When my daughter received notice that her summer abroad trip to Taiwan was canceled, she was devastated. She is minoring in Chinese and worked so hard to be chosen for the program. Her story is similar to so many of your stories so she doesn’t have a monopoly on disappointment.

Nuptials have been canceled. Seniors in high school and college were robbed of milestone memories. A walk across the graduation stage has been replaced by a shuffle to the kitchen to break up the monotony of being confined. Performance stages all over the nation are dark and arenas are empty. Literally everything that means something to someone has been placed just out of reach.

I was calling it our “new normal” but I’ve stopped using that phrase because this is not a permanent change in our lives. If everyone cooperates, we will emerge on the other side of this and hopefully, we will have a new appreciation for what we once considered mundane. It turns out that as much as we complain about having to show up somewhere, we failed to see the freedom that comes with getting to show up. We are social animals and when we are forced to apply distance, we don’t respond very well.

It has never been more apparent as we drive through our bustling cities to see empty streets and closed businesses. On normal days, we complain about the crowds and the lines but these days, we yearn for those small annoyances because it means we are living our lives and doing the things that bring us happiness. I didn’t realize how much sitting in a restaurant with friends and laughing was part of my mental wellness. In our police department, we congregate in meetings and roll-call and what I once considered obligatory, are now things I miss simply because of the social component that goes along with conducting business.

When I’m confronted with challenges either personal or professional, I try to ask myself, “What is this trying to teach me?” When we can learn to apply lessons to our struggles, it often provides a much-needed perspective. This pandemic is no different. What is this trying to teach all of us?

My favorite book is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. I’ve read it over 20 times but never has the message been more relevant to our current plight. His book taught me that everything can be taken from each of us except one thing — the freedom to choose our response in any situation.

Frankl was a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp and his book chronicles his experiences and lessons of survival. When other prisoners were giving up on life, Frankl learned that he could control his mental health despite not being in control of his surroundings. Even when people were dying, he chose to search for meaning in suffering. You don’t have to be a prisoner in a concentration camp to understand the parallels of those fighting this virus or suffering from losing someone who has succumbed to it.

How do we attempt to find meaning in a pandemic that we convinced ourselves was only possible in cinema? I don’t think we have reached Frankl’s level of enlightenment, but perhaps we shift our focus on doing so.

Maybe the lesson is that we are all interconnected and what affects one of us, affects all of us. Our actions matter. Reckless behavior by one of us could cause illness or death to someone we love.

We understand interconnection when it comes to kindness. “Spread that stuff everywhere” is a mantra we all comprehend. Perchance what we need to take away from this is that the “germs” we pass along to one another aren’t only in the form of infectious disease. The other ways we infect one another manifest in violence in the streets in the form of anger and hatred. And it spreads more hatred and kills more people. I wonder if a virus can teach us that human transference is more powerful than we ever imagined.

Wash your hands.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A Lesson for Adults: Talk Less. Care More.

Aurora police officers Skyy Calice and Star Pirela stopped into my office to pitch an idea. They run a mentoring program for females in our area high schools called, “Girls Run the World” and during one of the meetings, the students asked the officers why no one ever asks them for their input on how to reduce gun violence.

A week prior, 15-year-old Jasmine Noble was shot in the head and killed at a party on the west side of Aurora and the students were (and still are) feeling the pain from the loss of their classmate. Earlier that week, 20-year-old Juanya Booker was shot to death on the east side of our city.

Aurora has faced challenges surrounding gun violence for a long time and although we have made great strides in the reduction of violent crime in our city, any life lost to a senseless murder leaves a painful void in our community and in the lives of those who loved them.

When Ofc. Calice and Ofc. Pirela said the students wanted to meet with city leaders and offer their input, I was intrigued. As the police chief, I talk to kids all the time. I’ve been invited to speak at our Youth Academy and all of the area schools and I do it as often as my schedule allows. But the words that stick out to me in that description are “talk” and “speak”. It occurred to me that in my interactions with our young citizens, I do more talking than listening.

I told the officers I was in and I recruited Mayor Irvin and the Superintendents from our 3 largest high schools to listen to 30 students (male and female) representing their respective schools. Ofc. Star Pirela organized the event and lured everyone in with a catered lunch. After the food was scarfed, Ofc. Pirela addressed the students with the following question:

“What factors are contributing to today’s youth violence?”

I thought the conversation would be slow to start but hands immediately went up in the air and Ofc. Pirela handed off the microphone where it continued to get passed around. One after another, the students offered their opinions:

  • Bravado on social media.
  • Fear of being ridiculed (i.e. bullied).
  • Lack of friends.
  • Abuse at home.
  • Lack of a father figure.
  • Bad parenting. 

I only spoke to ask a few clarifying questions and as I listened to each student, I was awestruck at the wisdom that was flying around the room. Hearing teens inform us that the major contributing factor to violence is parents who don’t act like parents was interesting to hear. One student shared that parents (regardless of single-parent or dual-parent homes) lack skills and pointed out that too many want to be “friends” with their kids. She offered that they don’t set boundaries for curfew, they don’t go into bedrooms and see what is in plain sight and they don’t pay attention when their kids start hanging out with a bad crowd.

They were fighting over the microphone to add more examples of bad parenting and I was on the edge of my seat. One student offered, “You can’t tell me that the kids who shot up everyone at Columbine and the other schools didn’t have guns or other clues in their bedrooms that their parents should have seen.”

WAIT, WHAT? They want boundaries. They crave rules. They want supervision.

Another said that physical and verbal abuse at home is one of the major reasons our youth are walking around hurting others. “When they feel so bad about themselves, they treat others badly.” Hearing them identify the systemic and causal factors that lead to violence was mind-blowing.

I was immersed in this conversation but I was feeling a sense of helplessness as they described these failures in their own homes. As a cop, I’m programmed to live in a problem-solving mode. I am wired to de-escalate and to stop the bad thing that’s happening but, at this moment, I understood at the core of my being that we cannot control the things that happen in a student’s home.

Ofc. Pirela’s next question was perfectly transitioned to address my internal strife:

“What can police and adults do to mitigate these factors?”

And then a beautiful girl took the microphone and said simply, “We need you to care.” She went on, “We need our police and our teachers to listen to us and to get more involved – please just hear us.”

The damaged kids walking around our schools who are involved with drugs, guns, and gangs got there either because they learned it from parents who engage in those behaviors or because they are running away from something in their lives. Simply put, hurt people hurt people.

We often have no idea what happens behind closed doors. What I learned in this listening session is that police, educators, coaches, faith-based leaders <insert any adult> can have an impact on the life of a teen if they care to do so.

Superintendent Jeff Craig from District 129 said that educators can begin by changing the way they interact with students who show up late to school. “Rather than pointing out that they are late and sending them to the dean for discipline, we can instead say, ‘We are glad you’re here.’” What a difference that can make in the life of a teen who may be late because they are at the mercy of their parent to get them to school or whatever obstacle at home caused them to be late. At least they showed up.

The students pitched tangible solutions such as setting up an anonymous texting platform so they can report incidents without being called a “snitch”. They suggested sending kids to tutoring rather than detention so they can get the academic help they need. They also said that we should get over the idea that every kid is college-bound and accept that some want to learn a trade rather than taking an academic path.

The biggest epiphany that we all must heed is that kids need boundaries and discipline from their parents, teachers, and police. They were quick to point out that being overly strict can backfire and cause rebellion but they offered that giving teens rules, boundaries, and discipline actually mean that you care for them and don’t want them to get hurt.

They also had the introspection to recognize that they need to hold each other accountable peer to peer. Beyond that, they independently concluded that despite the outside factors contributing to drug abuse, violence, and overall bad-behavior, they have the freedom to choose. One student said, “We want voices and we want choices.” They identified courage as being the one quality that they need to exercise more so they don’t follow the crowd down the wrong path.

After this event, I am far less worried about our future because these wise kids are going to grow into adults who will make positive changes that will cause a ripple.

As for me, I’m going to do far more listening than talking going forward. And for all of us, the lesson is simple: Care. You might never know how one act of compassion can change someone’s path.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

20 Things I’ve Learned in the Past Decade

A few days into the new year, I sat down during my morning ritual (see # 10) and pondered the lessons that the past decade offered me. Here is a list of the highlights. Maybe you can glean something from them as well as you take your first few steps into the new decade. 

1) Preparation is the key to everything. The way our officers and staff performed during the mass shooting in our city validated for me that we really do fall to the level of our training. Invest in people. Invest in equipment. Then put both of those things together and go through all the training scenarios you can think of so that when it’s not a drill, you’ve already been through it in a controlled space. You play like you practice.

1.5) Lesson number one isn’t just for police street survival — it’s for life. If you aren’t preparing and bettering yourself with each passing year, you will remain stagnant. This doesn’t mean that you have to get a degree or climb a mountain, but you do have to commit yourself to constant self-improvement. Read a book, take a class, fix a bad habit. Figure out what things you need to start doing and what things you need to stop doing to get better.

2) Life is precious. I already knew this but now I really get it. I felt it when I was in the command post during the shooting and didn’t know if our five shot officers were alive or dead. I felt it in all of my molecules when I attended the funerals of the five human beings who were killed that day. The pain of their family members brought me to my knees. I’ve seen and felt this kind of pain before but this time it was different. It brought clarity to the notion that we are only here on earth for a very short time.

3) Air Pod Pros were the best purchase ever. The noise-canceling feature has changed my life. I love babies but not when they are screaming on an airplane. 

4) Stop trying to win over the haters. You are not the jackass whisperer.

The ridiculous name-calling and bullying that happens over social-media and behind computer screens is so infinitesimally inconsequential in the big scheme of things. I have to come to a place in my life where I genuinely don’t care what the critics are saying because they are cowards making noise from the cheap seats. Any chump can sit behind a computer and spout off. I only take criticism from those who are on the front lines with me with their sleeves rolled up doing the work. The rest is just noise. This has brought me so much peace. Just put on your noise-canceling headphones and keep doing what you do.

5) Pay attention to what you pay attention to. Energy goes where your attention flows so if you find yourself obsessing over the little things, change your focus.

6) I lost a few relationships over the past few years and I was struggling to understand how I failed to see what they had been revealing to me all along. Now that I have some time and distance, the clarity is shocking. I have learned that addition by subtraction is real.

7) As my kids enter adulthood, I was mourning their absence from the house and the fact that they aren’t children anymore. But what I realized this year is that I don’t just love my kids — I really like them as human beings. They are smart and kind and funny and it’s really cool to be able to hang out with your family because you want to — not because you have to. Parenting is hard but try and build good kids who contribute to society. Also, provide just enough dysfunction to make them funny. 😆 

8) Don’t practice blind loyalty. Stand with people when they are right, but have the courage to question and part with them when they go wrong.

9) I still hate mushrooms. Every year I try to like them but this year was a no go. I’ll keep trying.

10) Morning routines affect productivity. I started waking up at 5:30 a.m. so I could set my intentions for the day. My routine consists of:
  • Brewing coffee.
  • Meditating while the coffee is brewing (my mediation time record is 7 minutes).
  • Writing down 3 things for which I am grateful.
  • Writing down 3 things about which I am excited.
  • Outlining my schedule and tasks for the day.
  • Exercise. I am obsessed with my Peloton.
I read about how successful people have strict morning routines and I decided to try it. It totally works! The meditation is still a struggle for me because I have the attention span of a 5-year-old but I have found that by starting the day with gratitude and intention, I am in a mindset of abundance versus scarcity. When I see my day outlined by schedule and tasks, I am better able to keep on track. Seriously, this is life-altering. I use this planner.

11) Even when you think you understand something, you don’t. I think of myself as enlightened when it comes to race relations but I’ve come to realize that there is no way I can comprehend the plight of another no matter how empathic I believe I am. I read 3 books in 2019 that made me realize my level of ignorance:
In a time where the minority community does not trust the police, I have sought to gain a deeper understanding so we can find ways to build bridges. Each of these authors helped me understand the depth and the breadth of societal and racial disparity and while I will never be able to fully comprehend the plight, I am determined to try. The best thing about trust is that it is not finite. We can build it if we seek first to understand, and then be understood.

12) Someone nice to you but not nice to a person in any service industry is not a nice person. Kindness matters.

13) You’re not too busy. You just haven’t made that person or thing a priority. No one is that important or that busy so stop saying you are.

14) Hurt people hurt people. The way others treat you is just a reflection of how they feel about themselves. Don’t take it personally.

15) “Okay.” vs. “Okay!” mean two different things when written. Punctuation matters. I have also accidentally conveyed a harsh tone via text or e-mail when my intention was to be just the opposite. The lesson here: important conversations are best had in-person.

16) Complaining is useless so stop doing it. If you’re upset about something in your life and can change it, do so. The victim mentality is unappealing. 

17) Your inner-circle matters. Surround yourself with people who don’t drag you down. If they steal your energy, it’s time to subtract them. Surround yourself with people who call you on your bullsh$% and make you want to be better. Surround yourself with people who do things and help you contribute to the world in a good way. Your tribe tells me everything I need to know about you.

18) It’s okay to ask for help. The strongest and most bad-assed people I know are those who have the courage to reach out when they are struggling. Struggling is real and it’s different from complaining. 

19) When something scares you, that probably means you should pursue it. Opportunities will not wait for the perfect moment so when it knocks, maybe it’s time to open the door. Then blow the door off its hinges.

20) And through it all, don’t forget to laugh. As my friend and colleague Jeff Wiencek says, “laughter is like shocks on a car — it makes going over the bumps much easier.”

I wish you a happy and productive 2020 filled with laughter and love.

Onward and upward.