Discussions Matter to Law Enforcement: When Theory Meets Practice
by Robynne Sherrill
Robynne Sherrill is a native of Detroit, Michigan, with a PhD in organization and management, specializing in leadership. She has lived in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio during her progressive thirty-plus-year career in human resources, talent management, and people/leadership development. Robynne focused her research on the field of law enforcement out of respect for the many men and women who have maintained their commitment to protect and serve citizens on a daily basis. She is an avid learner and aspires to continue her writing journey to promote healthy leader and follower behaviors by contributing expertise and literature that supports law enforcement and other entities. Visit www.discussionsmatter.com to learn more.
On August 9, 2014, the policing-community relationship experienced a significant shift, with the death of Michael Brown — an 18 year old Black male in Ferguson, Missouri — shot by Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson — a 28 year old White male. Additional incidents involving the publicized deaths of Black males in altercations with police officers followed, further straining the policing-community relationship and widening the divide in the United States. The divide hardened when the Black Lives Matter movement was initiated and, in response, law enforcement proclaimed that Police Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. In the gap were those asserting that All Lives Matter. This divide influenced the development of my book Discussions Matter to Law Enforcement: A Guide and Workbook for Law Enforcement Officials Committed to Changing the Status Quo.
Although this divide influenced the delivery of Discussions Matter, the vision for the book was born out of research I conducted for my dissertation, An Exploration of the Relationship between Transformational Leadership and Courageous Followership Behaviors in Law Enforcement (Sherrill, 2015). The study explored this relationship using the Leadership Practices Inventory (Kouzes & Posner, 2012) and The Follower Profile (Dixon, 2003) self-assessment instruments to determine if those in law enforcement who assessed themselves as transformational leaders also assessed themselves as courageous followers. Analysis demonstrated an overall positive relationship between transformational leadership and courageous followership behaviors as self-assessed by 148 law enforcement leaders in the state of Ohio.
In addition to those participating in the study, I held discussions with law enforcement officials during the research process to ensure that the study reflected the reality of their profession. Engaging in those discussions, combined with my research, gifted me with the ability to dig into the issues related to the community-policing divide with fresh eyes and sidestep the pitfalls of stereotyping the groups involved. From my viewpoint, the element that mattered the most was the one being leveraged the least — discussions.
As Roy E. Alston, Lieutenant of Police at the Dallas Police Department and author of the Foreword in Discussions Matter, writes: “Throughout the history of the United States, there have been these tumultuous times that were followed by periods of transformation heralded by reasonably minded individuals focused on solutions and not politics having real discussions about what to do to solve the problem” (Alston, 2016, p. ix). Discussions Matter — a practical guidebook born from my dissertation’s theory and research — is designed to help facilitate those conversations that can lead to changing the status quo.
As the International Leadership Association (ILA) President Cynthia Cherrey points out in, “Lewin and Leonardo Conversing on the Nexus of Theory and Practice,” scholars and practitioners working at the intersection of theory and practice have the ability to make a difference, to have an impact. Scholars can lean into an identity of “pracademic” and practitioners lean into an identity of “scholarly practitioner” to develop guidebooks and curriculum that are steeped in rigorous research and grounded in specific, in-the-field contexts. Research must not be done in a vacuum. The work I did to make sure my study reflected reality, as experienced by law enforcement, not only provided the insights that led to the guidebook, but also ensured that Discussions Matter would be instantly applicable and impactful. Of course, developing Discussions Matter was not as simple as cutting and pasting excerpts from my dissertation to create a book. I quickly discovered that developing practices out of theory and research first requires translation.
Translating Theory to Practice
Dependency on law enforcement to protect and serve has universal relevance. Law enforcement leadership and followership, in the United States and elsewhere, face continuing challenges that require improved leadership competency, particularly around motivating followers to “do the right thing” (transformational leadership) and calling out leaders who create toxic environments that harm our communities rather than protect them (courageous followership). Policing is a profession in which the stakes could not be higher. When faced with life-changing, life and death decisions, everyone, regardless of their role, must demonstrate courage. The strength or weakness of leadership and followership relations in law enforcement has cascading impacts throughout the police organization, related organizations, the communities they serve, and the individuals themselves.
The transfer of theory to practice requires lessening the focus on theory and increasing the focus on practical application. It requires speaking in the language of the audience and adding a practitioner bifocal to our scholarly lens. Knowing your audience requires a transition from understanding them theoretically to developing an understanding of what is important to them personally. In light of incidents that have occurred over the past three years, proposals for community-policing programs, training, and publications has visibly increased. A 2017 search for community policing on Amazon’s website resulted in over 2000 resources while a 2017 Google search resulted in over 3,000,000 references. Law enforcement officers (LEOs) are skeptical of all the resources being pushed at them that are authored by individuals (myself included) who have not walked in their shoes. Some, having worked 20+ years as a LEO, may even be insulted by a book-smart pracademic or scholarly practitioner throwing statistical data at them and suggesting they need correction. For me, perceptions such as these challenged the transition of theory to practice and required me to enter their world, versus writing about their world from the comfort of my own.
One way in which I checked myself was to have my first draft of Discussions Matter reviewed by Ira Chaleff, author of The Courageous Follower, and by Roy Alston, a LEO in Dallas. Chaleff provided feedback to ensure the content wasn’t too “academic” for my audience and that they would be able to translate the theory of courageous followership into action. Alston provide a complete review and editorial feedback from the lens of law enforcement, which significantly contributed to the development of my next draft. What did I learn about translating theory to practice?
- Write about the impact of the theory — not about the theory itself.
- Use terms that the audience uses to describe their internal situations.
- Talk to individuals representing the audience to understand their challenges, emotions, sensitivities, and passions.
- Use a neutral tone of support — not a telling tone.
- Provide examples, tools, and resources that can support practice.
- Include the scope of why the content is important to the audience.
- Avoid topics that border accusation or a perception of bias.
- Leverage the voice of other people in the target audience to emphasize application and practice.
The learning process associated with the transition of theory to practice is valuable and transferable regardless of the topic or audience.
Impacting Positive Change: Bring People with You
Impacting positive change requires bringing people with us on the journey between theory and practice. It is important to tell your story. Inform your audience of the theory journey that led to the point of providing a practical approach. Although my target audience may not find interest in the content of the literature review that supported my conclusions, they do respect the fact that I’ve taken the time to invest in the research that relates to law enforcement, and that I’ve engaged the target audience in the research via survey results, conversations, and agency visits. During the data gathering stage, for example, I reached out to my local police chief, asked for some time to discuss my research, and developed a long-term relationship as a result. He invited me to present my research during a chief of police community meeting, which provided reciprocal exposure and led to several additional agencies committing themselves to participate in the study. Leadership is about relationships, not authority, and the same is true for studying leadership.
My relationship with Roy Alston developed from a LinkedIn outreach. I needed to conduct a field test of the Followership Survey tool to validate the clarity of the instrument as it applies to leadership in policing, and began a search via LinkedIn for potential experts. As a PhD himself and a law enforcement lieutenant, Alston was a perfect candidate. He graciously participated in the field test and offered to support the research further. I would later realize the value of that relationship as I initiated the development of Discussions Matter.
Ira Chaleff is a household name for leadership and followership practitioners. When I decided to explore followership as part of my study, I reached out to him for direction on measuring courageous followership behaviors. He directed me to Gene Dixon (2003), developer of The Follower Profile instrument, which was used for my study. This led not only to a valuable relationship with Chaleff but also with the ILA where Chaleff serves on the board of directors and founded ILA’s Followership Learning Community. That relationship resulted in my ILA membership and my role as an ILA conference presenter on a panel moderated by Chaleff. He also wrote the postscript to Discussions Matter and continues to be a valued supporter. I cannot overstate the importance of bringing people with you to impact positive change. Each person on your journey matters. I have reached back to many study participants, chiefs of police, and others who have journeyed with me to involve them and keep the momentum going.
Bringing people with me also meant expanding my audience. The issues surrounding the policing-community relationship extend beyond law enforcement. Therefore, I developed a Discussions Matter Community Companion (free pdf download), designed to help citizens support law enforcement agencies and contribute to rebuilding relationships. I also partnered with an organization to produce Discussions Matter T-Shirts, which have been embraced due to the relevancy of the message. Discussions matter and they bring people along on the journey.
The Journey Continues
There have been so many people and events that have contributed to my journey between completing my dissertation and translating it into something actionable with Discussions Matter. Positive change is already occurring through the simple influence of awareness. When transferring theory to practice, do not underestimate the value of building awareness; it’s the flicker to a flame. Awareness is a precursor to change — and to a return on investment.
While Discussions Matter has gained traction organically since its publication in February, I have also invested resources in getting it out there. I was a sponsor at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards & Training Conference in May and provided bag inserts of branded ink pens and informational flyers. I also have a booth at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in October. If you want your work to have impact, if you want to bring people with you, you have to be willing to go to the primary conferences of your target audience and make your case. Bringing people with you is an investment.
The end goal of Discussions Matter is to influence positive change. Discussions Matter is early in its journey, however I am confident that it will have an impact and support changing the status quo. Each relationship built, each person exposed to Discussions Matter, each T-shirt, ink pen, or training session, brings us one step closer to that goal. Who is “us”, you ask? YOU and I, because by reading this article, I am bringing you with me! Welcome to the journey! Discussions Matter.
Visit www.discussionsmatter.com and learn more to continue the journey.
Alston, R.E. (2016). Foreword. In R. L. Sherrill Discussions Matter to Law Enforcement: A Guide and Workbook for Law Enforcement Officials Committed to Changing the Status Quo (pp. ix-x). Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press, Inc.
Chaleff, I. (2003). The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to & for Our Leaders (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Dixon, E. N. (2003). An Exploration of the Relationship of Organizational Level and Measures of Follower Behavior. (Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Alabama in Huntsville).
Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. (2012). The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Sherrill, R. L. (2015). An Exploration of the Relationship Between Transformational Leadership and Courageous Followership Behaviors in Law Enforcement (Doctoral dissertation). Publication number 368770. School of Business & Technology, Capella University, Minneapolis, MN.
Sherrill, R. L. (2016). Discussions Matter to Law Enforcement: A Guide and Workbook for Law Enforcement Officials Committed to Changing the Status Quo. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press, Inc.