Policing requires Meta-Leadership NOT Mushroom Management

The five dimensions of meta-leadership
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As many will have realised; I’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to get my head around what is going wrong with British Policing… Irrespective of where you actually sit in the hierarchical pile of crap, the bottom usually apportions blame upwards whilst their leaders generally cascade that responsibility to the lowest level, especially when something goes wrong. The recent riots have been a case in point.

The constant shovelling of shit up and down the gastrointestinal tract of policing simply exacerbates many of the issues. Consequently, any realistic relief is almost permanently constipated. Historically, neither end of that digestive tract is fond of taking any medicine to eliminate its ills, unless they actually developed it. All this before we even consider the negative impacts of the austerity pill, trust me diagnosis really isn’t easy!

I think most would agree, one of the fundamental issues that aids success in any organisation is that of ‘leadership’ and ‘ownership’. The inherent need to ensure that; workforce, managers and leaders are all pulling in the same direction for the same reason. It is important that leadership and management systems operate in such a way. Promoting and developing that feeling of ‘ownership’ right across the organisation, actually instills greater levels of trust between workers and their managers.

It is well-known that this methodology reaps many benefits for an organisation; it is an ethos that is taught in most leadership and management courses but unfortunately, one that is seldom applied once the newly qualified leader has received and scurried off with their resulting course certificate!

This subject was touched on earlier this year in a thread of The Police Debate at LinkedIn. The following question was posed…


Now many of those party to the debate are far more eloquent and academically qualified than I to answer this question and in addition, a good proportion are (or have been) senior police managers. Many have received all manner of leadership and management training to aid them in their role. As a consequence, they were also remunerated at increasingly higher rates of pay the further up the management tree they climbed. However, despite all the skills (and money) accrued on the way to the top, many still don’t realise (or perhaps don’t even care) that, one of the greatest barriers to seamless organisational ‘alignment’ is, their propensity for Management Speak & Buzzword Bollocks.

Meta-leadership is an overarching leadership framework for strategically linking the efforts of different organizations or organizational units to “provide guidance, direction, and momentum across organizational lines that develop into a shared course of action and commonality of purpose among people and agencies that are doing what may appear to be very different work…(wikipedia.org)

As I’ve said before I’m no expert on theory, I’ve spent all my working life as a practitioner not a theorist. That said, I do base productivity upon procedure and process information that I have learned previously… All in a practical can do manner as opposed to what if fashion.

These days I can however mostly understand and comprehend the information which is actually being trotted out, however that skill has taken 30+ years, even then I still have to Google for definition sometimes! Is it therefore any wonder that those at the bottom have deep-rooted suspicions about those at the top? Often they can’t even grasp what is actually being said (an example above), never mind take ‘ownership’ of ‘issues’ they don’t even understand. The debate thread started off with…

I have a suspicion that 2011 will be the year when successful organisations will be those who have found a way to audaciously align and engage their talent.

I get the drift and, I can be as cheeky, brave and/or impudent as the next but HOW?

Bring users, staff and stakeholders together to design/develop services. A whole systems participation and bottom-up approach is how you will get anywhere near such alignment.

Now we’re getting somewhere, still a little too buzzy for me but I’ll run with it, what next?

I think individual leaders distort the purpose of policing. The service exists in the office of constable, nowhere in the definition of constable is there mention of pursuing career goals at the expense of public service; yet many a senior police leader conveniently misinterprets police vision as career vision.

Hmm pretty impressive, must have gone to the same hard knock school as I?

Meta-leadership is distinct in that it is focused on cross-cutting leadership that generates connectivity among disparate stakeholders. Meta-leaders…seek to influence and activate change well above and beyond established lines of their decision-making and control. These leaders are driven by a purpose broader than that prescribed by their formal roles, and are therefore motivated and capable of acting in ways that transcend usual organizational confines…(wikipedia.org)

I have to say; I have never been a great fan of the application of theory in isolation from experience. This ethic was touched upon in a comment to one of my recent posts – The walls of our folly are crumbling!

…my pet hate at present is the “fast tracking” endemic in not just the police force but other areas of society. Put inexperienced bods in crisis situations and you will get meltdown…(Tam McKee)

You can spout all the theory of leadership/empowerment/management etc. you like however; once you lose sight of the basics the organisation is in place to deliver, it is often little more than hot air. As was said at the LinkedIn debate; “the distortion (of drivers and ethics) increases in severity the higher up one goes.” The police service (like so many other organisations today) appears to have developed systems of selection and promotion for its leadership that alienates and distances those leaders from the actual root process and ethos.

In addition, constantly creating artificial political ‘targets’ and contrived ‘indicators’ in policing will never replicate the realities of ‘efficiency’ in the business world. A manufacturer can count their increased productivity of widgets or, higher percentage increase in profit margins etc. Applying similar quantitive measures to how many offenders are processed for one offence or another actually distances the police from society.

Many often say that the police are resistant to change and stuck in their ways…

Developing and coordinating a National Police Strategy for the 21st Century: …”I must admit to feeling somewhat bemused by current talk that the police are the last unreformed public service. During the last government there were over 50 pieces of legislation around policing that related to us in terms of reform bills, miscellaneous provisions acts, serious crime acts. And even a back-of-an-envelope calculation produces at least ten pieces of legislation directly relating to the police service from the last 20 years. I would certainly argue that we have also reformed ourselves during that time”… (Sir Hugh Orde Lecture at the Royal United Services Institute – 16th March 2011)

Although any business needs a framework of metrics to know whether they are headed in the right direction, an appropriate mix of qualitative and quantitative data will always be required. We have to remember; “there is no single number to judge the efficacy of policing – that would be to confuse performance management with a piece of fiction about the end of the world and space travel.” That said and unfortunately, too many people don’t actually want to be held to account.

The system that produces generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. Officer’s rise to flag rank by following remarkably similar career patterns…to move up they must only please their superiors. In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity… (A failure in Generalship – Lt Col Paul Yingling US Army)

The time has come to stop treating police officers like dim mushrooms, keeping them in the dark and feeding them on bullshit at regular intervals with a hope that they grow… We are now in an era whereby Policing is only part, all be it an important part, of multi-agency partnership working.

Perhaps now more than ever before, the modern police service actually requires some Meta-Leadership and NOT the self-promoting, self-serving and self-important Mushroom Management that has become all too prevalent?


3 thoughts on “Policing requires Meta-Leadership NOT Mushroom Management

  1. I’m with you both here… The raison d’etra of my post was actually to try and point out that things must change. Keeping in mind that the system is big on theory but not so big on practice, the nearest theoretical management type I could find (and agree with in essence) was that of meta-leadership. You may have noticed that I also wrote about the ‘Dilberts’ back in January under the title Police Leadership: Dilberts Born or Made?


  2. I suppose I can claim expertise after 50 conference papers and 20 years teaching and consulting Dave. I know better – there is no real expertise in this ‘management development’ game – the theories all fail reasonable tests like ‘working twice’ and 70% of restructuring fails. Management By Objectives becomes Business Process Re-engineering via more a.k.as than a con merchant. Scott Adams says it all in Dilbert cartoons free on the Net.

    I agree with Steve, but do think some stuff can be managed. Most work done by cops isn’t police work and doesn’t need a cop. Beyond this, my guess is there are more problems in the rest of the CJS that need fixing before police. I have noticed my trigger finger gets itchy around the management-babble!


  3. Excellent post Dave, striking right at the heart of what must surely be the biggest problem the service now faces.

    “Management Speak & Buzzword Bollocks”… How apt!
    The office of constable is the bedrock which underpins the delivery of justice in this
    country. Those charged with enforcing law and order are office holders who are ultimately accountable to the law, not to any employer, politician or anyone else with a vested interest, for their actions. Its value and worth to the public has been demonstrated time and time again and it is the office which provides chief constables with their operational independence – from which legitimacy and consent flows.

    The imposition of targets and the employment of non-sworn staff in operational policing roles are eroding the Office of Constable. It is a proud and honourable Office and one which we have had the honour to hold. The office of constable is the golden thread that runs through British policing. Every sworn police officer holds the office of constable regardless of rank holds the office of constable. Sadly, many of todays senior officers talk a good job (and often not so good) but no longer walk the walk. They have become detached from the proud office in practice, elevating to high office and forgetting the basic priiciples upon which successful and practical policing should be based.

    Many have lost the respect of the rank and file and seem arrogant and ignorant of the gaping chasm they have created with their detachment. Scurrilous and dishonest self serving activities have stained the character of the majority of honourable and committed troops on the street. Elitest attitudes and often flagrant disloyalty to lower ranks has driven a massive wedge between top and bottom.

    The recovery of any ailing organisation depends firstly on an acceptance that reforms are needed and then hugely on a willingness to go “back to basics”, to stand alongside the frontliners, to remember what made the organisation successful in the first place. In this sense comparisons with commercial organisations can be useful. When an organisation spends a disproportionate amount of time looking inward at processes rather than outward at delivery to the public, it risks becoming insular and totally detached. Many Chief Officers seem arrogant and defiant, defending their fiefdoms at all costs, refusing to accept that by closer liaison with the rank and file, the answers to many of the problems within the service may be staring them in the face.

    “I think individual leaders distort the purpose of policing. The service exists in the office of constable, nowhere in the definition of constable is there mention of pursuing career goals at the expense of public service; yet many a senior police leader conveniently misinterprets police vision as career vision”. This paragraph sums it all up nicely. Until Chief OIfficers and SMT’s reconnect with the rank and file, the service will remain distanced from the community it serves. Disjointed, misdirected, half-baked plans and ‘flavours of the month’ prevail, giving the distinct impression that instead of pulling together, with so many differing objectives and goals, they are ripping the service we were once so proud to represent, to pieces.

    No one wants a return to the nonsense of performance management, its financial inducements and the divisive consequences it created. I agree that some metrics are needed, simple ones. The problem lies with the culture of the academic type senior officers. It seems they are not content unless they can create a power point presentation or a pretty little excel spreadsheet. Rather than plain speaking, they would rather pontificate and procrastinate with reams of verbiage to demonstrate their eloquence. Stuff the eloquence! Get on with it! Should policing really have come down to this, that it is directed by and dependant upon Microsoft applications? I think not.

    Back to basics. Simple plans. Minimal targets. Outwardly focused on the priority community issues that cause most public concern The protection of life and property, the prevention and detection of crime and disorder. Does it really need to a great deal more complicated than that? They are basic foundation principles that served the service well for generations and it is these principles that should be enshrined in any management plan.


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