Policing requires Meta-Leadership NOT Mushroom Management

The five dimensions of meta-leadership
Image via Wikipedia

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?