What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There

The imperative need for law enforcement to think differently

By Brian Willis   |   Jul 5, 2016
Policeman with police cruiser

Business educator and coach Dr. Marshall Goldsmith wrote a book called What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. There is an important lesson in that title for the law enforcement profession. What got us here as a profession will not get us to where we need to go in the coming years. In order to move the profession forward we need to think, train, lead, prepare, behave and live differently.


Language: We need to think differently about the language we use and way in which we describe our profession. Law enforcement agencies are not paramilitary organizations. The similarities between law enforcement and the military are that we both wear uniforms and have a similar rank structure. Beyond that we are very different in our demographics, training, missions, and areas of operation. There is a great deal law enforcement and the military can learn from each other—but we are distinctly different professions.

Wellness: We need to think differently about wellness. Historically wellness programs have been thought of as “soft skills” or “that touchy-feely stuff,” and undervalued for what they offer the profession.

We must think of wellness as an officer safety issue. Suicide is the single leading cause of death for law enforcement professionals in North America. Of the 132 line-of-duty deaths in North America in 2015, 18 of them were heart attack deaths, and we have no way of knowing how many officers died of heart attacks after their shifts or on their days off.

Sleep: This is directly related to wellness and it’s sadly true: Law enforcement professionals are chronically sleep deprived. That sleep debt is directly linked to our collective cardiac, type-2 diabetes, obesity and mental health issues.

Fatigue is also a factor in some of the less desirable decisions we make. A person who has been up for 17 to 19 hours has the cognitive impairment of someone with a blood alcohol level of .05 and someone who has been up for 24 hours has the cognitive impairment of someone with a blood alcohol level of .10.

If you showed up for work with a blood alcohol level of .01, we would send you home. Yet almost every law enforcement professional can think of numerous times when they have been at work, and potentially making life-and-death decisions when they’ve been up for at least 24 hours.

Inter-generational conflict: It’s time to stop the age-old tradition of bashing the “new generation” and stop telling the lies that the so-called Millennials are “selfish, self-centered and entitled.” The research on generations refers to the Millennials as “The Next Greatest Generation” and suggests they are the most service oriented and most entrepreneurial generation in history.

The reality is that regardless of how long you have been on the job, they were complaining about you and your generation when you started. Every generation has strengths and challenges.

Millennials didn’t invent the question, “Why?” Humans are, after all, curious by nature. But the Millennials may be the first generation in a while with the courage to ask that question—and expect an intelligent response. Rather than getting frustrated by Why, or seeing the person asking as being insubordinate, get out front of the question. When time allows (which is most of the time) explain what’s behind the directive, policy, or decision.

When people understand the Why they are often more supportive of the decision and more eager to get into the How and the What. “Do it because I told you to” is not an effective communication or leadership style.

Leadership: Many agencies use the promise of the opportunity to be a SWAT operator, K-9 handler, major crimes detective, or move up through the ranks as an enticement to get people to join their agency. Then they complain about the new officers that want those promised opportunities right away.

It is time to make leadership part of the culture. In many agencies leadership is a course. You have to take a leadership course or courses so you can tick off the box when you apply for promotion or specialty units. Once you take the course, however, there is no follow-up: no examination of the lessons learned or how to apply those lessons in the real world.

A culture of leadership requires a consistent philosophy and language that is shared throughout the organization. A culture of leadership requires that leadership be taught at all levels of the organization, starting at the foundational level—patrol.


I encourage leaders to use two questions and three rules as the starting point for this culture. The two questions are:

  1. 1. What’s Important Now (WIN)?
  2. 2. What’s the right thing to do?

The three rules come from Pete Carroll’s WIN Forever philosophy and they are:

  1. Always protect the team.
  2. No whining, no complaining, no excuses.
  3. Be early.

These simple questions and rules can be woven into the fabric of any agency and used in decision making at all levels of the organization. Now, more than ever, we need a culture of strong, courageous leadership in law enforcement.