Capturing the Moment: Counter-VUCA Leadership for 21st Century Policing

What’s going on? Not All Wrong – But Not All Right

Crisis happens. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA), coined at the Army War College in the early 1990’s (Mack, et. al., 2015), is a sobering new reality for police officers and the communities they serve. In simple terms, VUCA is chaos. It falls on police to understand it, prepare for it, and minimize the disruptive and destabilizing effects of it. This article examines the concept of VUCA, and suggests how 21st Century police leaders who range from entry level to senior officers can personally be ready for VUCA and explore matrix solutions to local community problems before they become crises due to VUCA.

Police face unstable environments epitomized by tragic shootings which suggest they need new sets of tools and capabilities; one to build personal strength which combines the dual characters of guardian-servant, and another to understand how to build organizational strengths through individual, organizational and community efforts. We contend that this comes from developing police leaders from the first day on the job and understanding how to mobilize community social capital via matrix solutions to problems.

VUCA is especially problematic today due to media fueled crises. Birmingham Police Chief, A.C. Roper (2015) feels that police as a profession, has allowed popular culture to draft a narrative which is contrary to the amazing work that so many officers are doing everyday across this nation. Our question is, why? We ask, what can police leaders do to increase mutual trust and respect when VUCA influences and detracts from community relationships and effective policing?

Our contention is that effective policing and a most effective strategy to combat VUCA is to create relationships based upon trust. Communities that have mutually trusting relationships with their police forces consistently have higher satisfaction ratings with delivered services (Winfree, et. al., 1999). Furthermore, they are eager to increase collaborative efforts intended to continually build the livability of their neighborhoods.

Our neighbors readily embrace Community-Oriented Policing where law enforcement officers use trust-building and problem-solving approaches to create healthy places to live, work and raise a family (Normand, 2015). Conversely, those policing agencies that over-use the “hammer and nail” type of policing, characterized by too much or inappropriate use of the warrior mentality, often find themselves in strained and dysfunctional relationships with the people they serve. Aggressive ticketing or saturating targeted areas, for example, can actually exacerbate VUCA. “When there appears to be no alternative the hammer and nail response is – more of the same” (Normand, 2015). The authors suggest that leaders understand the disruptive nature of VUCA and use police character building education and community policing strategies in particular matrix problem solutions to answer VUCA.

Understanding Policing VUCA

VUCA has to be considered in decision-making and especially training for 21st Century Policing. All people involved in policing need to understand VUCA environments and to expect the crises of change, surprises, chaos and lack of clarity and what to do to counter-VUCA in every call for service. As indicated earlier, VUCA contains the following elements:
• Volatility – Volatility basically states that the nature, speed, volume and magnitude of change cannot be known (Sullivan 2012 p. 5). As an example, we have witnessed increasing workloads, new technologies and changing laws all while staffing remains the same or decreases.
• Uncertainty – Issues and events are unpredictable (Kinsinger & Walch, 2012). Uncertain policing environments continuously make it difficult for law enforcement to use past issues and events as predictors of future outcomes which make tactical enforcement difficult and decision-making challenging (Sullivan, 2012). This can be seen in events that are politically charged and/or garner media interests. These events are not always congruent with experiences on the scene.
• Complexity – Policing is the epitome of incalculable variations of cause, effect and mitigating factors (Sullivan, 2012) played out in a call for service for example, because of the combination of the highly technical details of policing and the convolution of dealing with people.
• Ambiguity – Ambiguity is the lack of clarity about the meaning of an event (Caron, 2009) or, as Sullivan (2012) writes, the “causes and the ‘who, what, where, how and why’ behind the things that are happening are unclear and hard to ascertain.” Police investigations are filled with ambiguity where lack of clarity constantly complicates outcomes.
Each element of VUCA presents its own set of difficulties. These difficulties magnify and create chaos when combined. Police leaders have to understand how chaos affects policing and how to counter it which begins by in developing all officers, especially the new recruit, to deal with its compounding and confounding realities.

From a pragmatic standpoint, police deal with VUCA situations from moment to moment. When overwhelmed by stress, some officers are unable to employ the balanced characters of 21st Century policing – that of warrior and guardian. Thus, their cognitive ability is hamstrung, thereby limiting critical decision-making, resulting in a reactionary “crime-fighting” mindset. 21st Century peace keepers have to be trained and developed to balance the technical skills of the warrior and the humanistic character of the guardian-servant.

Prelude to Counter-VUCA – Communication for Mutual Trust and Respect

Building trust is challenging, perhaps more so in policing. Thankfully trust begets trust (Kimmel, 2014) in a virtuous cycle. Even under the best of circumstances, the approach of a uniformed man or woman with a gun and all the badges of authority engenders a bit of fear in all of us. Recall your reaction to a simple traffic stop, “Oh my, what have I done now?” It takes a very skilled and experienced officer to quickly establish confidence, calmness, and concern as a prelude to a good outcome. As Sheriff Normand (2015) observes, “We hold the public trust in the palms of our hands and it needs to be massaged every day.”

Police have real opportunities to shape perceptions and outcomes of their work (Thomson, 2014). In the case of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, Harvey, LA, their belief of “. . . delivering good, clean, aggressive law enforcement with empathy, sympathy and a high degree of intellect” (Normand 2015), describes 21st Century policing. Mutual trust and policing transparency which comes from earned two-way sincere communication is the first step to countering VUCA. This has to lead to proactive measures to improve community safety, security and wellbeing (Normand, 2015).

Counter-VUCA: Policing in motion

VUCA demands the 21st Century police officer learn and develop dynamic tools such as humanistic crisis response and de-escalation (Arey, et. al., 2015) to deal with situations that create entropy, a descent into disorder and perhaps chaos which irreparably damages community relations. Issues with VUCA may well be best responded from the lens of what we refer to as Counter-VUCA policing, including but not limited to the following:

• Volatility – Counter-VUCA policing responds to Volatility with shared vision and partnerships. This is basically a joint agency-community vision and subsequent action to construct community projects to enhance wellbeing supported by local resources, talent and commitment. These joint efforts result in better problem solving and customer service. One example can be found within the Sacramento Police Department’s Cops & Clergy Program, which educates religious leaders about gang prevention and enforcement, then partners to provide outreach to high-risk youth. Police must collaborate with the community as never before if only because expectations for law enforcement services are most times inordinately high while the role and limits of policing are inordinately misunderstood.
• Uncertainty – Uncertainty is countered by understanding the environment and personal dynamics of policing. Ultimately officers who are well trained technicians and educated as leaders under the ‘whole person’ concept develop emotional balance which is demonstrated by the ability to stop, look and listen; to establish situational awareness and determine the optimal tactical and/or humanistic response for the situation at hand. For example, uncertainty can be reduced by having a plan for critical incident response. Clearly, operational readiness is paramount.
• Complexity – Similarly, the 21st Century police leader learns to address complexity with clarity, professionalism and accountability. These are realized by skillful and appropriate situational responses characterized by empathy, procedural justice, trust and transparency; with mutual respect and accountability built over time. Use of force simulators for example, educate community leaders in police procedures while working to dispel unrealistic expectations and unexpected responses to policing by community members.
• Ambiguity – Finally, ambiguity is countered by controlling a potentially confusing situation and agile decision making. These include the ability to take ownership of a community VUCA situation, make deliberate decisions that are built on the established agency/community shared vision; then move collectively and appropriately to resolution. It is here that skilled problem-solving comes into play. This also means that police leaders, especially young officers in our communities, guide people through change, chaos, and uncertainty (Chacha, 2004).
A police agency counters VUCA by preparing its workforce for servant-guardian policing by developing the organizations commitment to community policing thru local matrixes of talents and resources to problem solve.

A Call for Counter-VUCA Policing

Counter-VUCA implies the development of strategies and actions which can prevent if not stave off the worst of VUCA effects. We propose a two pronged strategy, short- and long-term. First, develop the police guardian-servant who is technically proficient and has moral character; plus mutual trust-building skills. Second, the police organization must learn to lead and collaborate with community members to identify and implement local services that answer a mutually defined problem. This is another way to do Community Oriented Policing (COP).

Develop the Guardian-Servant – The first line of defense

The 21st Century, marked by near instant communication, the media, and an informed/involved citizenry; demands police who are technically competent as peace keepers and skilled guardian-servants of the community. Police leadership and especially staff who continuously work on developing a moral compass (Normore et al. 2014) and the skills of deliberate leadership (Keis & Javidi 2014) build and establish healthy working relationships with the people they serve. Healthy, meaningful relationships are one of the best ways to counter-VUCA. The new police professional, the first line of defense against VUCA, works on the duality of the technical competencies of policing and building character; marked by integrity, honesty, sincerity, impartiality and intelligence. With that, the community becomes strengthened.

Notice that when referencing community policing, the community comes first. There has to be the bond of a practical, working partnership between citizens and police for any community oriented policing idea to reach its potential. Police in Sacramento, California and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana use COP strategies and have done so successfully for over twenty years; consequently, connection to their communities is quite strong. COP at these agencies is characteristically a servanthood style of policing where citizens have an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with the police to problem solve.

The success of a COP idea becomes a strong indicator of how people feel about the kind of service they get. Declining or low numbers of complaints can be a good indicator of community support. Take the Sacramento Police Department for an example. For the past five years, internal affairs cases have been on the decline even as ways to report misconduct increase and service demands remain steady. The same is true for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, Louisiana. Sheriff Newel Normand reports that during the past four years customer complaints have dropped by fifty percent with a subsequent significant decline in internal investigations. Both agencies stress community policing and leadership training and development, which focuses on Counter-VUCA actions to address the disruptive new normal of community VUCA. More can be done to complement the efforts of individual officers on the beat.

The Matrix Solution – Practical Application of Counter-VUCA

The expectations citizens have of their police officers have always been high; the expectations officers have of themselves are higher. The needs and wants of the community are in many circumstances overwhelming, even unrealistic. Simply put, public institutions cannot realistically provide expected and needed services without collective effort, especially when it comes to ensuring safety, security and wellbeing. The community must be involved in resolving its own problems.

The good news is that there are local answers and resources to problems in the community; all that is needed is to gather key people and organize their efforts which is actually simple but not easy. This mustering of people forms a matrix of talent and resources chosen as the problem and its solution dictates (Klopovic, Vasu & Yearwood, 2003). Mutual problem solving is a counter-VUCA strategy. By way of a very brief introduction to building a local matrix to answer a community problem, there are a few things to keep in mind. Building permanent service capability considers the three major phases of a project’s life cycle (Klopovic, fall 2016, anticipated release):
I. Planning – Preparing an idea for implementation needs to be thorough and focused on key features of building the capacity to support services. Planning needs to continue until there is a collective awareness that “enough is enough.” In the end, action is what matters.
a. Assemble key leadership – This is the founding group who are individually chosen for their willingness to work on the idea and materially contribute to it.
b. Assess capacity – Understand what can and more importantly, what cannot be delivered according to the local resources, people, materiel, supplies and etc.
c. Define project scope – Less is more. In the excitement of realizing an idea which has probably been brewing for a long time, the tendency is to over reach because so many ideas seem possible. Resist the temptation to do more, and focus on small bites done well win the day.
d. Define project impact analysis and process evaluation – This is the assessment and use of information about effectiveness and efficiency respectively, as they work together. They are organic, and feed off each other. An idea cannot be effective unless resources are first used efficiently and the processes of work are goal fixated. Together, they paint the picture of project success, which is used to justify the project’s existence and resources. They are also an early warning of obstacles and problems before they become crises. Data is a waste unless it is used to build capacity.
e. Assemble resources – Note this is much, much more than money. Resources are people, in-kind donations, supplies and equipment, contacts lists, and information just to mention a few. The most significant resource is human capital and its social capacity.
f. Define relevant services – Services should target the accomplishment of a narrowly defined project goal. Again, doing too much will kill the good idea. Try only to deliver one service if possible.
g. Identify key staff – A charismatic leader is essential. This is the person who eats, lives and breathes the vision of the idea and will succeed at all costs. This champion will attract other champions and shape them into a goal oriented team and actually lead any appointed leadership body.
II. Operations – Put your plan into action – There is no perfect time to implement, just a collective feeling that all is ready. Be cautious and determined as this is when a project usually fails. Operationalize each of the above key planning elements. Each one should be supported by an action checklist, and follow them closely.
III. Stabilize/expand your problem’s solution to become permanent and begin to close the service to needs gap. Stability comes before expansion. Project stability is the moment when the idea becomes self-sustaining, that is, it generates its own operational resources. Only then can you consider a small, determined, focused addition of more clients, services or, halleluiah, another site. Slowly, surely you can begin to address the assessed community need or your service.
H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. (n.d.) rightly observed: The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to. The hard part is doing it. In the end, it is action that matters; that action must have a rational way to proceed and be led and done by inspired people.

Capturing the Moment

Police are at an opportune moment in the evolution of policing as an institution – however, we can take it in two directions: one of inertia or one of progress. We can see current crises like Ferguson, New York and Baltimore, as forces beyond our control and succumb to inertia or we can see it for what it really is – a chance to revisit, rethink, rebuild, and strengthen our officers and policing. We maintain the latter is the right choice. By recognizing there is chaos, VUCA, in policing, we can counter it by developing enlightened leaders who lead through communal matrix solutions to mutually defined problems that multiply the social capital which exists in every neighborhood. Our opportunity is to build career long leaders who can address chaos in policing, even thrive in Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity as competent servants and guardians with “empathy, sympathy and a high degree of intellect” (Normand, 2015). The 21st Century police officer embodies the best of what this experiment in the Republic has to offer. It is exciting to contemplate what he and she will accomplish with this new understanding.

Mitch Javidi, Ph.D. – The Institute for Credible Leadership Development
Lieutenant Brian Ellis, MS – Sacramento Police Department

The authors acknowledge James Klopovic, DPP of the International Academy of Public Safety and Timothy Valenti, J.D. of Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office for their support to this project.
Arey, J. B., Wilder, A. H., Normore, A. H., Lannzzo, M., & Javidi, M. (2015). Crisis Intervention Teams: An Evolution of Leadership in Community and Policing. In Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice (pp. 1-7). Oxford Press.

Caron, D. (2009 February 08). It’s a VUCA world. CIPS. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/dcaron/its-a-vuca-world-cips-cio-march-5-2009-draft.

Chacha, J. (2004). 10 pillars of Christian leadership. Wilkesboro, NC: Morning Star Publications.
Kimmel, B. (2014). The Business Case For Trust. In Trust Inc.: Strategies For Building Your Company’s Most Valuable Asset. Chester, NY: Next Decade.
Keis, K. & Javidi, M. ( 2014). Deliberate Leadership: Creating Success Through Personal Style. Altona, CA: CRG Publishing.
Kingsinger, P. & Walch, K. (2012). Living and leading in a VUCA world. Thunderbird University. Retrieved from http://knowledgenetwork.thunderbird.edu/research/2012/07/09/kinsinger-walch-vuca.
Klopovic, J., Vasu M. & Yearwood, D. (2003). Effective Program Practices For At-Risk Youth: A Continuum Of Community-Based Programs, Civic Research Institute, Inc., New York, NY.
Klopovic, J. (Expected release fall 2016). From The Bottom Up: Reforming The Criminal Justice System With Capacity Building, Reentry And A Movement. New York, NY: Civic Research Institute, Inc.
Normand, N., (2015). Interview with Dr. M. Javidi, October, 1, 2015.
Normore, A, Javidi, M., Anderson, T., Normand, N., Scott, W. & Hoina, C. (2014). Moral Compass For Law Enforcement Processionals. Raleigh, NC: International Academy of Public Safety, Inc.
Mack, O., Kare, A., Kramer, A. & Burgartz (2015). Managing VUCA World. New York, NY: Springer.
Roper, A.C. (2015). Cop beaten unconscious in effort to avoid shooting unarmed man. Retrieved on September 10th, 2015 at http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/08/16/cop-beaten-unconscious-in-effort-to-avoid-shooting-unarmed-man/
Schwarzkopf, N. (n.d.). Quote about the right thing to do. Retrieved November 20, 2015 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2012/12/27/norman-schwarzkopf-quotes/
Sullivan, J. (2012). VUCA: The new normal for talent management and workforce planning. Ere.net. Retrieved from http://www.eremedia.com/ere/vuca-the-new-normal-for-talent-management-and-workforce-planning/
Thomson, J. (2014). The Common Denominator in an Uncommon Business World. In Trust Inc.: Strategies for building your company’s most valuable asset (49-54). Chester, NY: Next Decade.
Winfree, L. & Newbold, G. (1999). Community policing and the New Zealand Police: Correlates of attitudes toward the work world in a community-oriented national police organization. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 22(4), 589-618.
Mitch Javidi, Ph.D., is the founder of the International Academy of Public Safety, the Institute for Credible Leadership development and the Criminal Justice Commission for Credible Leadership Development. As a globally recognized expert on leadership development, Mitch has trained leaders at the Joint Special Operations Command, and the US Army Special Operations Command and is an honorary member of the United States Army Special Operations Command. A past tenured Associate Professor at NC State University, he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor at NC State and Illinois State Universities. He is a member of the “Academy of Outstanding Teachers and Scholars” and the Distinguished 2004 Alumni of the University of Oklahoma. Honorary Sheriff Mitch Javidi holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma and is the co-founder of the International Academy of Public Safety (IAPS), Sheriffs Institute for Credible Leadership Development, and the Criminal Justice Commission on Credible.

Brian Ellis is an 18-year veteran with the Sacramento Police Department. Lieutenant Ellis has worked in a number of specialized assignments including with the Problem Oriented Policing Unit, Parole Intervention and Career Criminal Apprehension Teams, Narcotics and Robbery/Burglary divisions. He is currently a watch commander for the East Command. Brian earned his undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice from California State, Sacramento and has a MS in Organizational Leadership from National University. Brian is a life-long student of leadership, and passionate about helping others reach their true potential by inspiring authentic action. He has written articles for several publications, including Law Enforcement Today, Peace Officers Research Association of California, PoliceOne, The Oxford University Press, The Journal of California Law Enforcement; and been published in two academic textbooks with IGI Global Publishing where he has contributed to chapters. Please

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Brian Ellis

Brian Ellis is a 20-year veteran of the Sacramento Police Department. Lieutenant Ellis has worked in a number of specialized assignments including with the Problem Oriented Policing Unit, Parole Intervention and Career Criminal Apprehension Teams, Narcotics and Robbery/Burglary divisions. He is currently the SWAT commander and oversees the Metro Division’s Special Operations section. Brian earned his undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice from California State, Sacramento and has a MS in Organizational Leadership from National University. Brian is a life-long student of leadership, and passionate about helping others. He has written articles for several publications, including Law Enforcement Today, Peace Officers Research Association of California, Police One, The Oxford University Press, The Journal of California Law Enforcement; and has contributed to chapters in IGI Global Publishing textbooks. Please follow him on Twitter @BrianEllis10.


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