While I am not what one would designate as a “Leadership Expert”. That being said, in my 34 years in law enforcement, many of the positions I have held were at the leadership level. When I retired from law enforcement, I continued my leadership roles in school safety in various positions. Why is this important?—because all of my successes and failures had to do with leadership. As I examine each active shooter incident, both the successes and failures can all be attributed to leadership. When we discussed building your legacy and what that meant and what type of legacy you wanted to leave, it is very likely that your legacy will be directly related to the type of leader you are and how well you perform your leadership responsibilities.
As this won’t be a lesson on how to be a good leader, there are lots of courses and books to read on that subject, I will explore many of the attributes and steps you can take to develop your leadership skills to function at a high level during an emergency. As you might imagine, those skills are developed long before any emergency starts. There are many definitions of what leadership is and how to determine what makes a leader effective and successful. The following is the definition of leadership I heard many years ago that has stuck with me throughout my law enforcement career, so let’s use this one for the purpose of this blog:
“Leadership is the ability of one person to influence others to do what is necessary because they want to do it.” Developing good leadership skills is a process of evolution and can be learned by most people. As with many of the topics we have discussed throughout this blog series, it starts with learning the basics of leadership, then building upon that knowledge as you gain skills and experience.
In previous blogs, we have discussed the importance of the 3 Pillars of School Safety: Policies, Systems, and People. When we talk about safety leadership, one might naturally gravitate to the “People” pillar. However, good leadership is someone who can successfully balance all three pillars to build a strong safety culture within their organization. Safety leadership should be directly involved in the development and administration of safety policies and the administrative regulations that accompany those policies. Since it is one of the primary responsibilities of the safety leadership to ensure policies are fully implemented and carried out, they should be directly involved in their development. In fact, during any gap analysis or needs assessment, policies should be one of the top priorities for the safety leadership who should be driving these needed policies.
While driving and building a strong safety culture in schools, safety leaders are often looked upon as the safety and security experts for their respective organizations. In this capacity, when looking to add new safety measures and assets, strong leadership is a requirement when scoping new projects. I can’t count how many times we have gone to onboarding a new project, and the project team does not understand the project, or what their goals and objectives are for that specific project. Understanding how a new safety project fits into your organization’s safety ecosystem is the responsibility of the safety leadership. It is also their responsibility to ensure that everyone on the project team understands their role and how to communicate the new project to those who are going to use and implement the new safety asset. Always keep in mind that you purchased that new safety asset to solve a problem, fill a need, and make your schools safer, not just to check a box.
Making tough decisions, being a good problem solver, and holding people accountable are good attributes to have for those in safety leadership. Everyone is looking to you to be calm, confident, and decisive during an emergency when lives are at stake. Being able to prepare your staff before an emergency will go a long way to establishing and building those attributes. Communicating with your staff about your expectations of them and what their responsibilities are is also very important. However, holding your staff accountable for meeting your expectations is key. Often when we talk about accountability, we naturally think of the negative connotation. Actually, if you communicate well, teach and guide your staff to meet your expectations, and help them gain confidence in their responsibilities, you won't need to rely on formal accountability tools very often.
In fact, resorting to formal discipline is often a sign of failed leadership. Remember our definition of leadership: “Leadership is the ability of one person to influence others to do what is necessary because they want to do it.” There will always be those who absolutely refuse to play along. Those who don’t believe safety is their responsibility/job. With those people, a formal disciplinary process may be necessary, but only use it when necessary.
One last aspect of accountability that we need to discuss; holding yourself accountable. Ultimately, when there is an emergency incident, you will be scrutinized for everything you did and didn’t do. This includes everything that the community expects of you, what you did to prepare your staff, and how you held yourself accountable to the highest standards. Holding yourself accountable will allow you to rapidly evolve and gain the respect and confidence of your staff. It will also go a long way in protecting yourself and the district from lawsuits in the future. While school safety is a shared responsibility, it starts and ends with safety leadership.