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Three Teams, Three Leaders, and Three Ways They Killed Morale

Who buys into a hypocrite?

They were all picking up the pieces after the last chief left. While working with a police department one day and two fire departments later in the week, I kept having the same conversations about similar issues. The new chiefs were trying to rebuild morale the old chiefs had killed.

Three different departments in two different large metropolitan areas all had similar stories. In each case, the department had a new chief. The feedback from leaders across each of these departments were similar. “This new chief has a hard road in front of him after the last chief.”

Those teams were dealing with scar tissue from the past. The actions of the previous leader had nothing to do with the new leader - except now the new leader had to deal with the morale issues and figure out a way to move forward, despite the scar tissue.

Three Ways The Old Leaders Killed Morale

As I listened to the stories from these police and fire service leaders, I started to see some trends that had damaged morale. These are not just lessons in public service organizations. They are lessons all leaders should learn.

Values Spoken But Not Lived

The leaders left behind described the past chiefs as hypocrites. Each chief professed core values and put them on walls, websites, and challenge coins. They talked about values a lot at the beginning of their tenures. But, over time, those values just became buzzwords. The chiefs in those organizations consistently made decisions that were not in line with their professed values.

As a result, the rest of the leadership and the line officers and firefighters in those agencies stopped trusting the leader, because the person they committed to did not live by the values they proclaimed. For the people serving under those leaders, they were no longer bought in. Who buys into a hypocrite?

Inconsistent Communication

The old chiefs communicated consistently in the beginning. But as time went on, they became ghosts. The frontlines heard from them via email, but they were rarely seen. A common refrain was, “The only time we saw them was when something was wrong.”

The fact is, silence kills trust. When there is silence from above, people don’t assume the best. The idea that “No news is good news” is a lie. People assume the worst. The lack of communication and day to day visibility created a crack between the command staff and the frontlines that over time becomes a canyon.

Accountability Meant Punishment

Under the old regimes in all three of the agencies, the idea of accountability became a four letter word. If the word accountability was used, somebody was about to get in trouble. Mistakes were punished. Accountability was not about getting better, it was about finding blame.

When the men and women in these agencies looked back at their time under the old leadership, they discussed a CYA (Cover Your A _ _ ) mentality. People were more worried about avoiding trouble than they were about getting better. The distance between the upper leadership and the frontlines grew and morale took a nosedive.

There are lessons we can all learn from these three organizations and the failure of the past leaders. Morale is an inside job. Yes, people in public service, like our law enforcement and first responders, have had a series of difficult years. But, in the midst of all that, some agencies have seen great leaders step forward while others have not. The leaders who were hypocritical in living by their values, poor communicators, and used accountability as a weapon, killed morale.

The good news for the three agencies discussed above: a new group of leaders have stepped into leadership and they are planting the seeds of change. Our next blog will discuss the ways they are implementing that change.

Dig Deep Questions:

● When have you seen a leader hurt morale in similar ways?

● What do you think the key to rebuilding morale is in these agencies?


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