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Fixing communication between line staff and administration

More and more often we have civilians, or sheep, in administrative and political positions; here’s how to close the communication gap between them and our officers, or sheepdogs

As the dynamics of our society change, so do the elements of what is most valued in our leaders. More frequently we see education replacing experience and networking replacing practical skills as a qualities needed to move forward in an organization. Criminal justice agencies are no exception. Because there is a growing emphasis being placed on education and the ability to manage budgets, we are seeing fewer leaders who are where they are because they were the best at what they did at the line level. Essentially we are seeing more sheep managing the sheepdogs. This presents unique challenges as the two sides attempt to understand the needs, motivations, and intentions of the other.

Most of those working within law enforcement are aware of the “Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs” analogy brought to us by author and expert on combat stress, retired Lt. Col. David Grossman. In his book On Combat, Grossman breaks people down into categories consisting of sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.

Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs
The majority of people seem to fit the role of the sheep. This is not meant to be a derogatory term, but instead characterizes most people by what they are; good, decent, gentle, and productive members of society. They have little or no capacity for violence and very simply want to live out their days in peace, absent from any type of conflict. I have found that to some degree most sheep, and therefore most of those in society, are also largely idealistic. They strive for that world where no one is ever hurt, killed, or injured and peace and harmony is the standard rather than the vision. While not a bad thing to want, the reality of life is a different story.

The wolves are described as the predators within our society that live to prey on the sheep. They often use violence as the means by which to achieve their objectives. In many ways they understand the sheep better than the sheep understand themselves. By studying the sheep and their motivations, habits and behaviors, they are able to more easily identify soft targets.

Grossman describes the sheepdogs as those within society who wake each day with the expectation of confronting the wolves. They have a desire to protect the sheep, even when the sheep often seem annoyed by the presence of the sheepdog. Many times, but not always, the sheepdog will gravitate to a profession where they wear a uniform and where their sole purpose is protecting and defending the flock. Like the wolves, sheepdogs often carry tools of violence as a means by which to achieve their objectives. While both the wolf and the sheepdog possess a capacity for violence, the sheepdog operates within the confines of moral and ethical behavior as well as the law.

As mentioned previously, an interesting dynamic develops when the sheep are charged with supervising the sheepdogs. Issues arise that are frequently caused by a communication gap. This communication gap exists when the sheep cannot wrap their minds around the meaning and intent expressed by the sheepdog. Unlike the sheep, the sheepdog is realistic rather than idealistic and understands that the world is not always a utopia and that there are bad people who do bad things to good people. Language or thinking that seems politically incorrect, coarse, or otherwise concerning to the supervisor is how their sheepdogs understand the world.

Whereby the supervisor’s motivations are to maintain a semblance of political and social responsibility, the sheepdog operates under the basic premise, “Do what’s best to protect the flock and fight the wolf and give me the right tools to do it.” Sheepdogs understand that they must do everything that they can in order to stop the wolf. While the communication gap between the sheep (supervisor) and the sheepdogs (those they supervise) may seem to be an insurmountable obstacle, a positive and productive relationship can be created with time, patience, and a mutual understanding.

Understanding who you are
First of all, and perhaps most difficult, the supervisor must honestly evaluate himself or herself and come to terms with the fact that they are, in fact, a sheep. Again, being a sheep is not a bad thing, it’s just the way it is. After all, most people fall into the sheep category. It doesn’t make them weak, cowardly, or otherwise unfit for their job; it simply means that they have other motivations that drive them. By understanding their role as sheep, these supervisors take the first step in understanding that they see things through different glasses than many of those they supervise. By having a grasp on the motivation of their subordinates, supervisors may find that the intentions of their team members are based on what is truly in the best interest of serving, protecting, and defending.

It’s understood that the characterization of being a sheep may be off putting. I have sometimes explained the differences to people using another dog analogy. As a former handler of a dual-purpose Dutch Shepherd (sheepdog), I had the opportunity to work and train around many other dogs throughout the years. These included single purpose scent dogs that largely consisted of Labrador breeds. My Dutch Shepherd would bite when needed and would also sniff out narcotics. The Labradors were outstanding at finding drugs, explosives, or missing people but were generally not about to bite anyone. Both dogs have a value and one is no more important than the other, but they have different motivations. For those of you reading this who just cannot come to terms with thinking of yourself as a sheep, feel free to think of yourself as a Labrador retriever: a valuable asset and loyal friend who just happens to not want to bite.

Once the sheep understand who they are, they can begin the process of exploring the motivations behind the ideas, behaviors, and methods of their people. The supervisor must get to know and understand the sheepdog.

Understanding your sheepdog
As mentioned earlier, the sheepdog is a realist. They base many of their opinions on what works or what’s thought to work, what they have seen or witnessed, or what someone whose opinion they trust has seen or witnessed. Finally, they are doing the job. They are the ones committed to protecting and defending. Unless your sheepdog is completely out of his mind, there’s a good chance he’s doing what he’s doing or suggesting what he’s suggesting because it works. Remember the sheepdog is not an idealist so the manner and means in which a task is tackled has to come with some practicality.

Finally, for the supervisors to become effective leaders of their sheepdogs they must do all they can to understand the sheepdog mentality. We’ve discussed already the need for the supervisor to understand who they are, and who they are supervising, but it is crucial that the supervisor adapt to the sheepdog lifestyle that may be foreign to them. This does not mean that the sheep will become like the sheepdog or that they even want to; it simply means they will learn to understand their lifestyle.

This means reading articles and books, attending trainings, visiting with, and above all listening to your sheepdogs. The truth is, the sheepdog already knows the sheep. Living in a sheep’s world means walking among the flock every day. The overwhelming majority of popular culture, media, and politics are presented from the sheep’s perspective. So whether at home, school, work, or play, the sheepdog always has to fit in and may have even been sheep at one time.

What sheepdogs need to do
With that said, the sheepdog has a responsibility in the process as well. The sheepdogs must understand that they need to take the time to explain their thinking and their rationale to the sheep with regard to various issues. Those with the sheepdog mentality often assume that the receiver of their communication will think as they do. More often, the sheep among us rely heavily on their emotions to make decisions.

Even when they’ve committed to taking a realistic approach, they still view things through a different lens. The sheepdogs often rely on their personal experiences and the experiences of their trusted peers. They are often hardened and cynical through their experiences. Therefore, it is vital that the sheepdog take the time to explain why they think the way they think. While the typical sheep may never fully be able to understand the sheepdog, they may be able to learn to appreciate the sheepdog’s perspective.

It is important to understand that the purpose of this article is not to say that one group is better than any other (excluding the wolf of course), but to emphasize the necessity of understanding and respecting each other’s motivations. Whether operating in the dynamic of a supervisor-employee relationship or even in a personal relationship, it is important to understand that the sheepdog is a rare breed when compared to the majority of people. Take the time to understand them. Do not fear them as they want to protect, and do not misunderstand them as they want to defend. Our organizations will be better for allowing everyone to do what they are meant to do.

Grossman, David. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. Milstadt, IL: Warrior Science Publications, 2004.

Rusty began his career in 1997 working as a correctional officer at a men’s medium security prison. While working in the prison, he also served as K-9 sergeant, lieutenant and captain. He was a member of the Correctional Emergency Response Team for 15 years and held law enforcement instructor certifications in defensive tactics, chemical agents and firearms. In 2013 he became a full-time academy instructor where he instructed courses in several topics within the field of corrections and law enforcement. In 2019 he moved to his current position where he serves as a Department of Public Safety Bureau Chief. Rusty received his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Bellevue University and completed graduate work at Fort Hayes State University. Rusty can be contacted by email.

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