Let me draw a surprising leadership lesson from some of the horrible events of last week.

Our nation is in an uproar over race, and it should be. We’ve lost ground in the battle for racial unity, and we are all, I trust, in grief over it.

However, let me offer a perspective on a few of these tragedies that may help you in your leadership.

After the two videos of police shooting black men went viral last week, I called a few of my DC detective friends. They are all black. I asked them what they thought. I trust these men with my life, sometimes literally, and trust their wisdom on nearly all matters. If the shootings were a product of racism, they would tell me. If the shootings were justified, they would say so.

What they told me surprised me. To a man, they all said that the biggest problem was not race but poor training. None of them believed the policemen involved in the Baton Rouge or Minnesota shootings were ill-intentioned. They all believed the men were poorly trained and so quickly got in over their heads and then had to—or chose to—shoot their way out, so to speak. These last words are mine, not theirs.

In each case, they said, the policemen missed important steps, things they are trained to do but often forget if the lessons aren’t reinforced again and again. Once these critical steps were missed, the situation escalated, the officer panicked, and a life was lost. You should know that “panicked” was their word, not mine.

Now, all of these detective friends have been unnecessarily stopped by white cops. One of these guys is Secret Service. You can imagine the moment he pulled his badge for a white cop by the side of the highway. Another one of these men told me about getting stopped while he was driving an official vehicle! My point is that they all know what racism is, have all been victims of it, and they would not have hesitated to tell me that the cops in these videos were profiling and racist.

But, no. They have almost a century of police experience among them and they all said that while they can’t judge what’s in the heart, they can judge actions. The cops in videos made huge procedural mistakes and it cost lives.

In short, their training failed them. My detective friends explained that most police commanders have to fight to get training time for their officers. Tight budgets and understaffing usually mean that they have to keep their officers in the field. Training time suffers. This is the result, they said.

What is the lesson for you? Train your people. Make your organization a learning/training organization. Don’t assume your people know what to do because they heard you explain it once. Train. Teach. Practice. Make clear both your values and the conduct you expect. Weed out those who won’t learn. Reward those who do.

Our nation needs to fix its race problem. No question. However, it may just be that the shootings this past week had less to do with race than with bad training. It’s a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy all leaders should learn from.


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