Dead Horse Gap

Dead Horse Gap

AIPM Living Leadership.

The frontier of modern policing

Currently my favourite movie is The Revenant. In the last two years, I have watched it over ten times indulging in the wild north American rivers, an unrelenting revenge plot line and a strong historical base. Much of the dialogue is a contest of values between those surviving on the frontier, beyond the edge of civilization, who struggle for values in situations where they could go either way. The frontier doesn’t look easy. It can end quickly. Scalped by a hostile. You can face long swims in cold, frozen rivers and sometimes you suffer the indignity of sleeping in a dead horse just to survive.

The frontier provides a familiar story line for leadership, because the frontier is where the emergent properties of the future are first seen and nurtured. It was the shearers strikes in Western Queensland which forged the political identity of the Australian Labor Party, and it was the American frontier which gave the USA its presidents Jackson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

The frontier of Australian policing remains very unclear, shrouded in mist, obscuring obstacles, pitfalls and maybe some easy pathways. Darting in and out of this mist, we see the boundary riders. People with one foot in the organisation today and another firmly planted in the future. Boundary riders defy rank and role, they exercise leadership in the firm belief of progress rather than contentment in the current system.

The inevitable drivers of change are all pressuring organisations to move from their industrial age silted structures, to 21st century complex systems. If you cast your eye over Australian policing you can see evidence of these transitions everywhere, but generally speaking, we are closer to the start of the journey than we are in the middle. In and around the old and the new, you can see the boundary riders roam – imagining, experimenting, implementing small incremental changes, each time pushing the systems a little further away from their starting point.

In late February 2017 the AIPM held a Masterclass with Dr Angela Workman-Stark on Building Inclusive Police Organisations. One idea which resonated strongly was “we focus more on processes than people, and as we do, the distance between rank, structure and people continues to grow and into this gap has grown mistrust (paraphrased).”

And maybe this is why I am attracted to the boundary riders, those on the frontiers of change, who spend a career slowly and quietly moving people along. Rather than building empires, they tend to be those people who build connections, trust and capability. Gary is pursuing this agenda through his focus on police command. He’s not interested in the ‘do as I say’ command but the elusive command deeply rooted in trust and capability.

Gary works towards the transition of a system from processes, rules and structure to one underpinned by responsibility, values and trust. Gary steps lightly as he is challenging one of the foundational identities of senior police.

Chris sees education as the pathway forward. She can see a time when people in her organisation are going to be required to make more difficult decisions, more often. She can see education as one way of better preparing people for these challenges. More education, earlier in their career, the future will not wait.

Wade is a prospector. He works with others, all the time looking, seeking and building little nuggets of leadership gold. For him, leadership is not about rainbows and sunshine, but about the mud and grind of building better leadership through practice and hard work.

Melissa is all about disrobing. She has a view of policing which strips away the camouflage of identity, uniform, rank and purpose. If we are not creating public safety, what are we doing? But don’t get too excited, she’s not the one who ends up undressed.

On the frontier of policing, I suspect there are many other boundary riders, darting and ducking into and out of the mist, trying to find the way forward for their organisations. At our Masterclass for Inclusive Police Organisations, we had a room full of them. In terms of inclusion, no one truly knows the way forward, but they knew there is a ‘what’ - a clash of values, those from the past, with those for the future. And at the very basis of those values, is how people relate, connect and respect each other. Inclusion is not about quotas, it’s about behaviour.

In the movie The Revenant, those fighting for the values, which were later identified as ‘civilisation’ tended to come off second best. Inevitably over time, boundary riders find themselves drawn or pushed to the edge of their organisation – out of operations and into enabling areas. Sometimes they spill right out of the job. Many are familiar with the vulnerability and loneliness of sleeping in a dead horse.

Source: Singh, A. (2017). AIPM Living Leadership.