Retired Lieutenant Colonel David “Scott” Mann is many things. As a twenty-year member of Army Special Forces (a.k.a. the Green Berets), Scott describes himself as “an anthropologist with a gun,” but he’s really more than that. When Mann wrote his book, Game Changers: Going Local to Fight Violent Extremism, he wrote it about the lessons he’d learned in the backcountry of Afghanistan and other inhospitable terrain. It was meant to be a policy guide to future leaders in the fight on how to execute in complex environments. These were lessons he learned on the front line. As it turns out, Kandahar and Kansas City – or your city – are not that different.  

When I interviewed Lt. Colonel Mann for my podcast The Squad Room, there were five major ideas that directly translate to modern police work. 

1. Rural Afghanistan and tribal Iraq are not that different from many of the areas that we must police.

No, the lieutenant colonel isn’t talking about how Iraq and Chicago are both violent places. What makes them so similar is that whether you are in the tribal areas of Iraq or hostile territories of the Windy City, you must be willing to make a human connection with the good citizens of the neighborhoods. The Green Berets are responsible for convincing native tribes that they need to stand up and defend themselves. “There are so many corollaries between what Green Berets do at the community level and what law enforcement does around the country,” says Mann. He continued, “There has never in the history of our country been a more epic erosion of trust at the community level between members of the community, and between members of the community and their government. I think police officers probably know this better than most. Police officers are going to find themselves as the catalysts. We’re going to have to go into places that are demonstrating tribal behavior: violent, conflict riddled, trust-erosion behavior, and they’re going to have to restore trust and then lead from that place and it is not going to be easy.”

2. It’s up to you. Stop waiting around for your chain of command to do something.

“What I learned in 23 years of Special Forces work around the globe, from Colombia, to Ecuador, to Iraq, Afghanistan, is that all things that matter in life are local,” says Mann. “Anything in this day and age that is projected from the top down is generally not going to be effective, so when I’m talking to a local law enforcement officer, what I tell them is, ‘Listen, you know trust is going to be restored one citizen at a time’. A community can be turned around. You can restore trust in a community and when one community collectively reestablishes a measure of trust with itself and with its law enforcement it is contagious. Local law enforcement, local businessmen standing up and saying, ‘you know what? Nobody’s coming, I’ll start.’ And so my message to law enforcement is old school policing. Old school community policing? Well, guess what, it’s new school again, and it is the most relevant form of leadership and trust restoration in the world. And if you’re good at it, great, get better at it. If you’re not doing it, and you’d rather dress like Chris Kyle you might want to look at a different approach for the future.”

3. Practice the perishable skill of storytelling.

Mann suggests, “We are designed to be social creatures. We’re hardwired that way, even our biological reward systems of oxytocin and serotonin, they reward social behavior. So story, if you want to connect with people in a neighborhood, if you want to go in and bring people over to your side, whether it’s a tribe in Afghanistan, or a neighborhood in New York, story is the oldest form of human communication in the world. It is universal. We’ve been telling stories for 100,000 years as humans and we’ve only been speaking language for 10,000. Language was actually invented as a better means to communicate story. So what it does is it contains information in a delivery vehicle that hits the limbic part of the brain’s emotion it’s retained more, it’s acted on more, it’s just better than facts and figures and rule books. Storytelling is always more effective. Most police officers I’ve worked with, they instinctively know this; the question is how good are you at it. So I train it. I think it is essential, it is an essential law enforcement skill, especially in this day and age. If you’re going to wade into a nasty area and restore trust, storytelling will be an essential part of your kit bag.”

4. Lead for those who come after you, not those around you.

Mann gets visibly emotional every time he speaks about his father. “My dad was a firefighter for the Forest Service. The one thing he taught me that I believe every practitioner in law enforcement or special ops can use is the thing he called leaving tracks. So he was a forester and he’d take us out in the woods and he would show us a set of tracks and say, ‘you see that right there? Those tracks that are in the earth, that’s what I want for your life. I want you to leave tracks in this world’ and he defined tracks as those indelible impressions in the earth that serve not those around us but those who follow us. If you think about it from a leadership perspective, that’s a very difficult thing to do. Because you don’t get that ego feeding feeling of serving those around you. Leadership comes from, and the best leaders I ever saw in combat – whether they were colonels or sergeants or Marines or whatever – they were always guys who are fully aware of the tracks they were here to leave on this earth, or they know true north on their inner compass or their higher purpose.”

5. Recruitment is everyone’s problem.

Hiring new cops is a challenge all over the country. With declining benefits, negative media attention, and less emphasis on the importance of service, many departments are struggling to maintain their ranks. Perhaps we need to look deeper. Mann says, “The most talented people in my opinion, who have the most to offer to the kind of work that you and I do for a living are never easy to find. They’re always below the waterline – always. There’s always a story attached to them that requires you to dig a little bit. If the bulk of your recruiting is the easy to find people through HR and recruiting posters, you should be afraid because you’re getting people that frankly, I don’t want …” he trails off while shaking his head. “I want the guy or the gal who’s got some miles and some scars. I just believe that the best warriors, the best law enforcement practitioners are just below the surface.”

In many ways, law enforcement has benefited from the advancements made during the global war on terror. Surprisingly, the soft skills of building relationships and trust restoration might be our biggest opportunity of all.

———

Sergeant Garrett TeSlaa is a 13-year veteran of a Southern California sheriff’s department. He is the founder and host of The Squad Room podcast, which supports young leaders in law enforcement through self-development. He holds a Master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in public sector management and leadership, and is a graduate of the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute. Learn more at thesquadroom.net.