How Are You Shaping Your Environment? Today’s Law Enforcement Tactical Leaders Need to be Innovative, Agile and Adaptable
Tactical teams in today’s world of chaotic criminal actions and politically sensitive environments require leaders who have the ability to be flexible and adaptable. Tactical teams are often called upon to resolve situations outside of the norm that present significant threats to the officers and the community. This is predominantly reactive and often creates its own set of predictable problems we do not recognize. The leaders on tactical teams and those that command these units must possess critical thinking skills and utilize rapid cognition; for the layman like myself, this is known as intuitive decision-making. To achieve this requires a significant investment in how we select and develop our leaders.
In classes I teach, I ask many of the tactical team leaders this question, “what are you doing to shape your environment?” I often get a long stare with no response. It’s because this is a foreign subject to them and to law enforcement as a whole. By not understanding your role in the developing the situation and shaping the environment will always keep you on the reactive side of things and you are forced to operate in a house of cards. Too many tactical teams across the nation train and conduct day-to-day business for their 90% operational requirements; Warrants, Buy Busts, Barricade, Hostage-Barricade, etc. What they are not focused on is the other 10%, the predominant effort we exert in our development and training should be focused on that 10%. Why? When that call comes, we have to execute it like we have been doing it every single day. This requires problem solving, testing, validating and push that to failure.
As leaders, we have to challenge our decision-making processes, continue to hone them like a fine-tuned instrument so we may exercise the ability to process multiple OODA Loops as the situation develops.[i] Our sole focus should be consistently processing and comparing Courses of Action (COAs) instead of sizing up the situation more to seek additional information. There is a time to develop the situation and times we do not have that luxury, it takes a good leader, managing the operation and tempo, to recognize the balance and trust their intuition.
In the first part of the series, I discussed how we need LEADERS vs MANAGERS in today’s complex world of law enforcement. A good leader is also a good manager and there are times we, as key leaders, have to manage. Both leading and managing are critical organizational functions. What I am not saying, is that “managing” is inferior to leading, rather I am making the point that being an effective leader lends to being a good manager. The lingering question, what exactly do we manage? Since this is about leadership, I am not going to bore the reader and discuss managing budgets, team training, etc. I am going to focus on the tangible qualities relating to our everyday mission –
· Managing expectations, up and down the chain of command;
· Managing operational tempo;
· Managing development of the unit and personnel;
· Managing force multipliers to maximize efficiency;
· Managing flow and continuity of information;
When you truly understand and apply the core competencies and attributes of a leader, then you can balance leading and managing your unit or organization effectively. Whereas at the end of the day, from the first line supervisor to senior command we manage our organizations to ensure it operates at optimum efficiency. However, my issue at heart is that our institution continues to put manager before leader. That in itself sets us up for failure. Professor John P. Kotter emphasizes my point in the December 2001 Harvard Business Review, in summary he states that most organizations today “are over-managed and under-led.” The primary premise is that managers tend to promote stability while many leaders press for change. Only organizations that understand the balance of these two equations will be successful. My previous organization continues to struggle with this balance and how to develop leaders, so much so that Thomas Barnett of The Homeland Security Affairs also pointed out this capability gap in his article published in 2020, “As a result, CBP leadership-development programs must reflect globalization’s operational complexity while preparing these individuals for success in an ideologically-charged environment where the agency’s core missions remain subject to enormous political pressures for the foreseeable future.”
Many professional law enforcement organizations are wrestling with the changes of the world. The Department of Defense organizations are also making adjustments. This is outlined in a publication written by JJ Thomas of the U.S. Naval Academy, “Much of the leader development program from entry level through the strategic level within the US military is based on the traits and behavior/style approaches popular during the last century with continuous process improvement strategies added for good measure. However, many programs are beginning to focus more squarely on the context of the current operating environment—an environment characterized by volatility, uncertainty, and chaos. Really effective leader development programs focus on full-spectrum operations that reflect unconventional and conventional environments. Dynamic leadership skills are demanded in such environments. Dynamic leader development programs must be perfected to meet such challenges.
I echo those thoughts by JJ Thomas, dynamic leader development programs must be perfected to meet the challenges of our evolving and unconventional existential threats. I completely understand that not all departments or agencies have the budget or the ability to establish dynamic leader development programs. This is where I believe in the trickle-down effect, just like with TTPs out there being shared. The bigger organizations establish them, refine them and then pass them on through a myriad of training courses offered by a variety of training organizations. I am promoting a path of changing our institution and way of thinking. It starts with a foundation of leadership attributes and competencies and a concerted effort developing those. The management skills fall into place once one has learned how to lead effectively. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel and make up our own leadership model. Simply take what has been in place for generations and apply it to our own environment.
Be, Know, Do. The United States Army uses this leadership requirements model to encapsulate the core attributes and competencies of an effective leader. The below diagram does the job of navigating through these requirements.
In this article we are going to focus on the Be and Know, the key attributes of an effective leader. The first category is Character, it encompasses many tangible factors, our Department or Agency Core Values, our Service Ethos (Code of Ethics) and the United States Constitution. All of these factors demand our loyalty, above all, our allegiance to protect the Constitution of the United States. Every day I read case after case of where our law enforcement organizations overreach their authority and violate our fundamental rights as free citizens. Often it is because the subordinate leaders do not possess the personal and professional courage to challenge that order, often times these ambiguous and unconstitutional directives are politically or emotionally driven. As a leader, we cannot submit to that pressure. At times, the decision to disobey that order or challenge it may be the most difficult decision you make in your career. But it is a fundamental duty to those and the community we are sworn to protect!! Selfless leaders aspire to attain goals for the greater good, beyond their own interests and benefits.
Discipline, a topic that is discussed ad-nauseum in the tactical special operations industry, what exactly does that mean? Discipline is essential to character as much as it is to the unit and the organization. We as leaders have to make the harder right decision over taking the path of least resistance and making the easier wrong decision. Without discipline, the remaining attributes and competencies are meaningless. Being a good leader can sometimes feel like a very lonely place, because not all of our decisions are popular or received well by our peers and subordinates. Especially in the law enforcement tactical special operations environment, where often the leaders grew from the lower ranks to be promoted into key leadership positions. They have formed personal relationships within the unit and often these close relationships can create friction, for obvious reasons. In time, with discipline, those we lead will respect you in a much deeper means than they would if you gave into peer pressure.
A leader’s presence consists of attributes which, in my opinion, are what makes or breaks a leader in the eyes of senior command and his/her subordinate leaders and personnel. These attributes include professional bearing, fitness, confidence and resilience. Fitness relates to not only physical but includes psychological fitness. Maintaining a high level of fitness directly impacts our ability to exercise cognitive processes, i.e. think critically and make sound, timely decisions. In my career, we often had to be agile, focusing on one operation and then immediately switching to an entirely different mission set. Our operations would sometimes last for multiple days with little to no sleep. This is one reason our selection course has sleep deprivation instituted in the program. As a leader, you are expected to constantly assess and act regardless of how fatigued you are. Not maintaining a high-level of physical and psychological fitness will seriously impact your ability to effectively lead your team or unit. I often see tactical team leaders and commanders that let themselves go…..it circles back to discipline. Ask yourself this, how can you hold your unit and personnel accountable to a higher standard of physical fitness if you are not willing to do so yourself? The operational requirements demand it of you, shape your environment for success, both internally and externally.
Confidence, it is contagious and incredibly important, but overconfidence can also bring catastrophe. We do not train to lose or die, but if we are going to fail, do it in training. That’s the only way to achieve improvements and understand the true capabilities of your unit. As a leader, our confidence is obtained through continuous personal and professional development. If you lead by example consistently, your unit will trust your decisions and look to you when things become complex. To prevent from being overconfident as a leader, we must possess a level of humility, a leader who possesses the correct level of humility is a willing learner, maintains accurate self-awareness, and seeks out others’ input and feedback. As I mentioned in the previous article, I actively sought out those with specific talents and learned from them or brought them into the folds of our unit, so I had the right tools and resources to make sound decisions. To be a good leader, you have to be a good listener and recognize that you don’t always have the right answer, surround yourself with good individuals who can assist you in driving you to a decision point, for the better good of the unit and organization.
Fundamentally, intellect is the primary attribute for success as an effective leader. As our operational environments become more complex, leaders must possess the brainpower and knowledge to problem solve. We have to think creatively and critically to gain situational understanding, make sound judgements and ultimately, take the appropriate action. Intellect allows leaders to reason analytically, critically and with sensitivity. An effective leader is always considering the intended and unintended consequences of their decisions, part of that includes understanding the potential second and third order effects of their decisions. This is often lost with tactical commanders and team leaders as operations progress. As I view it, it is because these leaders continue to think on a linear plane, using common criminal templates to solve all problems. I cannot reinforce it enough, to combat today’s existential threats we have to be adaptable and flexible. If your intellect is on a linear plane, you become predictable and operate in the proverbial house of cards. This is referenced as “mental agility”, the ability to be flexible. Mental agility allows the leader to not fixate on the wrong problems. Mental agility allows you to develop the situation, be innovative and seize the initiative at the right times. Often these opportunities to seize the initiative are very small windows. Here lies the difficult part, in order to be agile and adaptable, you have to create a climate that encourages a level of risk……within the commander’s intent. This allows your unit to have freedom of action and seize the initiative at the right time. How is this accomplished? Through a tough and realistic training environment. As Deputy Commander, I utilized our training time as efficiently as humanly possible. We began to implement more Full Mission Profile (FMP) training evolutions into our training cycle. These were extremely challenging and pushed us to the limit. What is extremely important is that we readily accepted the unit to make mistakes, leaders to make mistakes and individual operators to make mistakes. We would hash them out in the After-Action Review and then made the necessary adjustments. By doing this, it gave the unit and my subordinate leaders the confidence to take necessary and calculated risks, most importantly the freedom to seize the initiative without higher guidance during dynamic operations. The training environment is where we allow and accept mistakes, for they do not possess dire consequences; experience, confidence and trust Is gained first through difficult training evolutions.
Innovation. I cannot say enough about this subject, working with and for individuals who are innovative is what made me get up and strap on the boots every single day. Our operational environment was in many ways, very different than other departments and agencies. We all have our own unique challenges and one is not more challenging than the other. In 2007, we had a very dangerous situation developing in our own backyard, small compartmentalized cells of criminals, we dubbed as “Rip Crews” were beginning to wreak havoc. Something like no one had ever seen, between the cities of Phoenix, Tucson and the International Border, these crews were hijacking (kidnapping) illegal aliens and holding them for ransom, others were hitting drug and money stash houses and ripping them. This led to active military style, squad size patrols in the desert ripping off the drugs from the “mules”. The violence escalated at an alarming rate and all of the tactical teams in Southern Arizona were wrestling with solutions. We fell into the same crux everyone else did, we used a common criminal template to combat these small cells, purely reactive in nature…using an interdiction model…locate them and hit them. This was extremely successful at the beginning, but our overconfidence was rapidly eroded when we realized they had adapted and were kicking our butts. We had to be innovative and adapt to the new environment.
We put our collective thinking caps together, since we were not able to get any reasonable actionable intelligence, we had to develop our own situation. Long story short, we established a Reconnaissance Element within our unit, comprised of both tactical operators and we recruited Border Patrol Agents who had the most intimate knowledge of their respective “battle-space”. We sought out active technical intelligence collection devices that our guys improved on to work in our environment to provide as much real time, actionable intelligence as humanly possible. We took an additional step of recruiting personnel with specialty skills in tactical intelligence and tactical operations management to establish a Operations/Intelligence Fusion Center, where intel and ops worked side by side. When our operators hit a target, conducted SSE, it was immediately processed by our own folks instead of waiting for outside entities to give us a report. This allowed us to continue to develop the situation and action targets in a much more rapid and efficient means. As we continued to evolve, we also leveraged our airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), manned and unmanned assets, to support our operations. We implemented the F3EAD (Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Assess, Disseminate) concept into our operations. This took several years of continuous refinement and adjustments for it to work efficiently. The final piece of the puzzle was the creation of our own low visibility targeting team that actively sought out cells, infiltrated them to establish a criminal conspiracy as part of a multi-agency effort.
Ultimately, this innovation proved to be very effective. Upon my departure from BORTAC in 2015, these cells were almost non-existent in our operational area. We had many setbacks, one of my men was killed in a firefight during this time. This did not deter us, we maintained resilience, our approach to these complex problems set up the future of our unit. It was during this time that all of us realized our threats were evolving and we had to adapt and become extremely proactive in shaping our environment. As leaders, our learning process must always be like leaning over the tip of your skis. On the edge of a complete wipe out, that is the only way we can be prepared for a terrorist event like Mumbai. I cannot reinforce enough, as Tactical Leaders, we have to train for that 1% scenario. If we plan and train for that 1% scenario, we can handle all other scenarios and make the necessary and correct adjustments.
Today’s world demands that we as a law enforcement institution, change our way of thinking and our approach to developing our leaders, especially so in the tactical special operations environment. We owe it to the future generations; for this world is continuing to evolve and we need competent leaders that can rise to the challenge of dealing with complex and unconventional threats and actions by criminal or terrorist elements.
Nick Glasset. “JJDIDTIEBUCKLE – USMC Leadership Traits”. Origin Leadership.(July 2018).
Joseph J. Thomas. “Leader Development in the US Department of Defense: A Brief Historical Review and Assessment for the Future”. U.S. Naval Academy, Center. (October 2, 2009).
Miller, Jeffrey M. “Rescuing Tomorrow Today: Fixing Training and Development for DHS Leaders”. Naval Postgraduate School, 2016.
Barnett, Thomas, P.M. “Capability Gaps Threatening CBP’s Present and Future Operations.” Homeland Security Affairs 15, Article 3 (September, 2019). https://www.hsai.org/articles/15389
Sean Coldiron is a recently retired Watch Commander who spent 21 years with the United States Border Patrol in Arizona. Prior to the Border Patrol, he was a veteran of the 75th Ranger Regiment. During his career with Border Patrol, Sean served for 15 years with the full-time special operations tactical unit, BORTAC based in Tucson, Arizona. He served at all levels with BORTAC to include 3 years as the Deputy Commander. Sean is well respected within the tactical community and currently owns and serves as the Director of Operations for IRONCLAD Concepts and Solutions. He also serves as an adjunct instructor for the Department of Homeland Security’s Tactical Response to Suicide Bomber Incidents.
[i] John Boyd, “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act”