The Part of Leadership No One Talks About

We’ve all read leadership books and probably attended some leadership classes. These books and classes usually focus on the leader-follower dyad. The focus may be on traits possessed by a good leader, i.e. integrity, charisma, decisiveness, empathy, being a role model, etc., or focuses on preferred styles of leadership, i.e. autocratic, transactional, transformational, situational, servant, etc. However, the point they usually fail to talk about is this – what are you leading towards? What is your organization trying to accomplish? What direction are you providing to your organization? A failure to provide direction is a leadership failure. Failure by leaders to provide direction is common in both the public and private sector.

In 2017, more than 10,000 managers from 400 companies were surveyed and asked to list their company’s top five priorities. Two-thirds of the top executives were on the same page – only 27% of the time.1 You can conduct a similar survey at your own agency. Individually ask your first-level supervisors if your organization was successful last year, (yes or no) and what they’re using as a measuring stick of success. If you get wildly different answers (and I suspect you will) – that’s a failure of leadership.

When there’s an absence of direction, employees will fill the void with their own direction – with the best of intentions – but still their own direction. They do the work they “think” they should be doing, but the result is everyone is probably rowing in different directions. As an organization, we need everyone rowing in the same direction toward mission accomplishment. But have we defined to our employees what the mission is?

picking leaders

(Courtesy Richmond Police Department, Virginia)

When law enforcement employees are asked to list their top complaints about their agencies, 80 percent of the complaints can be compiled into two categories; micromanagement, and lack of direction. (Micromanagement in our industry is a topic for another article.) When I talk about lack of direction in a class I teach at the state police academy, many leaders in the class come to the realization they have not been steering their own ships. Many of us lose sight of accomplishing specific outcomes and begin to drift as we become consumed with answering the daily calls for service. So how do we find our direction?

Direction begins at the top – at the executive level. For a moment let’s imagine the executive of your governing body came to you and told you on the first of next month you were going to be the new police chief or sheriff. Picture in your mind what type of law enforcement agency you will want to create. How will it look, and what will your new organization aspire to accomplish? What differences will your community see and experience?

This new picture (or vision) you now have in your mind is the beginning of a new future. It’s like an architectural rendering of the organization you want to build/create. Once you have that vision in your mind, we can begin talking about the importance of a vision statement and a mission statement. I’ll start with a simple definition of each.

A vision statement is an aspirational statement of what you aspire to achieve or aspire to create as an organization.

A mission statement is a public declaration of why you exist as an organization.

The definitions are simple, creating those statements is more complex.

As an industry, we seem to get caught-up in statements with big words that sound important. In classroom exercises I ask students to develop a vision and mission statement. Students working in groups create statements that sound impressive, but when I challenge them by asking what it means in real life, the students go back to work and create a new product that truly is aspirational and visionary.

Your vision statement is the architectural rendering of the vision you created in your mind, expressed in words. And again (just to emphasize the point) your vision statement should be an aspirational statement of what you aspire to achieve or aspire to create as an organization. This is a very important statement to create for your organization.

Several months ago, I was in a Tesla car dealership. I spoke with four or five young employees. I was impressed that each employee not only knew Tesla’s vision and mission statement but more important, it inspired them. As a result, I was curious because in my mind this was merely a car dealership. However, in their minds they weren’t merely a car dealership – in their minds, they were saving the planet by facilitating the transition to sustainable energy, and they were excited about their role in making that vision a reality. That is exactly what a vision statement (the aspirational statement) is supposed to accomplish in all our organizations.

Let’s assume you now have your mental architectural rendering in place, the organizational vision in your mind has been converted to words as a vision and mission statement. Now it’s time to start creating the blueprints – or the plan of how you are going to make that vision a reality.

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Bellingham, Washington police officer. (Photo credit Alex Smith)

The next step is a progression of steps as you move thru goals, objectives, strategies and finally tactics. Sometimes the term goals and objectives are used interchangeably. For a better understanding of the difference refer to an article on The link to the article can be found in the reference section.

Normally the progression through the steps of Goals, Objectives, Strategies and Tactics is done through a process of strategic planning – (which is also a complete topic of its own for a different article). However, for a brief introduction, the following is an abbreviated definition of each step in the hierarchical progression of Goals, Objectives, Strategies, and Tactics.

Goals are the major building steps or phases in constructing your vision. Like construction plans of a building, your first phase might be the dirt work, (grading, installing the foundation, installing underground utilities, etc.). Perhaps the second phase is framing, (flooring, walls, roof trusses, plumbing, electrical, etc.) and subsequent phases until all your phases are complete and you have a finished building. From your vision, you will need to determine what the major components or major steps will be in building your vision. These are the goals everyone in the organization should know. (Additionally, thru the subsequent steps of creating objectives, strategies, and tactics, everyone will know their role in making that vision a reality.)

Objectives are the quantifiable steps taken to accomplish each goal. These are still high-level overviews of each objective that describes the type and quantity of resources needed (both human and capital) and time-specific deadlines for accomplishment. These typically are created by collaboration between the executive level and middle managers. Objectives may also be cross-functional, meaning not just one division or section accomplishes the objective – it may require a collaborative effort across various divisions.

Strategies are the plans created by a collaborative effort between the middle managers and the first-level supervisors. This step is an example of how middle managers are the promise keepers of the organization. The chief or sheriff makes a promise to the community – in this case through the vision statement, goals and objectives, and it is up to the middle managers to figure out what resources they need to keep those promises – i.e. make those promises a reality.

Lastly, tactics are created by a collaboration of the first-level supervisors and line-level employees of specific activities or tasks that occurs where the rubber meets the road.

As a real-life illustration, the Tucson, Arizona police department’s strategic plan is an excellent example of the hierarchical relationship between goals, objectives, and strategies. Their plan shows how a goal is the starting point, then objectives are subordinate to and support the accomplishment of the goal, then strategies are subordinate to and support the accomplishment of the objective.

Tucson’s goals listed in their strategic plan starts with Goal 1: Reduce, Prevent, and Solve Crime, which has three subordinate objectives, listed a 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3. The first objective, 1.1 Establish Effective Enforcement Initiatives, has ten subordinate strategies, listed as 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.3, etc. The second objective under goal 1, 1.2 Enhance Investigative Initiatives, has fifteen subordinate strategies. Tucson’s Strategic Plan3 is a very clear illustration of the hierarchical relationship between goals, objectives, and strategies and may stimulate some ideas in building your vision for your organization.

The bottom line is most leadership books, and leadership classes cover leadership theories and leadership traits, but few if any talk about this – what are you leading towards? Failure to provide direction to our employees is a failure of leadership. Our employees want to do good work, and they want direction. They are so motivated to do good work that in the absence of direction they will create their own direction. Survey your employees, ask them individually if your organization was successful last year (yes or no) and what they’re using as a measuring stick. If you get wildly different answers, then you will know you have not been steering your ship – that you have not been providing the direction needed by your organization.

Good leaders focus on both the leader-follower dyad and leading towards something. What are you leading towards? How do you measure success in your organization, and are you using the same measuring stick of success as your followers? The easy way to find the answer to that question is to ask them. Then your next leadership step will be obvious.


  1. 2017, MIT Sloan Management Review, Turning Strategy Into Results, Reprint #59209
  3. Tucson Police Department Strategic Plan 2013-2018

Capt. Bob Woolverton (Ret), is a 34-year veteran of the Bothell, Washington police department, and is second-generation law enforcement. (His father retired from the Seattle Police Department.) He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, (Session 183), holds a bachelor’s degree in management and leadership from Bluefield College, Bluefield, VA, and a master’s degree in management and leadership from Western Governor’s University – Washington. He is also a leadership instructor at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center. His personal mission statement is; Lead, teach, and Inspire.