From the Docs

What Makes a Leader?

If you’ve followed recent events, you’re familiar with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has shown himself as a compelling leader. Somehow, he made it look as though he trained for the role of moral leader of the free world all his life. His brash courage and bold speeches urging Russia not to invade Ukraine and encouraging his citizens to resist and fight are the essences of leadership. Zelensky’s speech just prior to the Russian invasion, the speech just after, the one to the UN and the one to the U.S. Congress are inspiring. But his words are not the true measure of his leadership. Words cannot stop the Russian army, nor can they provide air cover or a no-fly zone. By themselves, words cannot prevent the fall of Kyiv or the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians, including his own. What makes Zelensky such a tremendous leader, which is something we can all do, is that he matches his words with overt and deliberate action.

The following truths on the psychology of leadership are what keep us fighting even against all odds and can lead us all to prevail together.

Leaders communicate intent. Leaders speak boldly and confidently about the ends they desire, especially in crisis. I remember exactly where I was when Sheriff Villanueva clearly expressed that we would not allow our cars or stations to be burned or vandalized in 2020. Similarly, Zelensky believed in Ukrainians when everyone expected him and them to run. He told the world and the invaders that Ukraine would never give up. Leading often starts by saying no, holding the line and refusing to give in. Leaders provide a visible example of moral clarity by standing up and saying no — this far, no further.

Leaders lean in. Zelensky has used his spotlight to ensure the needs and injustices faced by Ukraine cannot be ignored. Leaders step in, they speak up and they make themselves seen and heard. But they rarely talk about themselves or for their own benefit. Even if he cannot himself stop the advancing Russian troops, he can sound the moral clarion call and not allow us to avert our gaze.

Leaders share the danger. I worry about President Zelensky, but I doubt he is worried about himself. “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” A leader’s place is right where the fight is. Deputies lead by walking a mile in each other’s shoes, going where the need is, where the suffering is, and standing shoulder to shoulder with their partners and the public. All of you have literally been “there.” You have all responded to Code 3. And you must be where the fight is to protect, to serve and to lead.

Leaders are servants: Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek was a favorite among the Marines with whom I served. While symbolic, this gesture is based on the biology of our species and summarizes many of the core functions of leadership in this analysis. Leaders train and prepare their subordinates and then themselves. Leaders don’t ask others to take risks they are unwilling to take. A leader steps in front of their partner to take a bullet to protect them. Selfless, servant leadership is what we follow instinctively and what pulls teams and nations together to win.

The shocking war in Ukraine is a stark reminder that there is no real psychological health or flourishing in combat or war. Health requires peace. The profession of peace officers is to absorb the hardships and take the risks in place of the community, to maintain peace and order in the community you serve. A few years back, I had the opportunity to speak at length with Kyiv’s chief of police about the challenges of trying to maintain peace and freedom on the frontlines of insurgent war. He talked about regularly hearing the skirmishes and explosions and how his tiny police force was overwhelmed, exhausted and drawn far too thin. He was a leader, and he came to Los Angeles to seek guidance on how best to care for his officers and sustain them during trying times.

I often thought about them then as I do now. I think daily that, were our situations reversed, I would gladly go to war with deputy sheriffs by my side. Officers just like you in Kyiv and Odesa are living, dying, fighting and leading on the front lines of this invasion. The peace you maintain by putting on your uniform and leading every single day is the safeguard of democracy. It all starts with raising your hand and standing on that line, doing your duty and leading and serving from wherever you are on any given day. Today, the line of defense stretches from here to Kyiv as the defenders of Ukraine hold the thin blue line for us all. And the line is tinted with a bright shock of yellow.

Psychological Services Bureau provides support to all members of the Sheriff’s Department. If you would like a confidential (and free) appointment or consultation with a PSB psychologist to discuss this or any other topic, call Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500. To obtain additional information, visit our intranet site at