A Lesson in Authentic Leadership from the Dallas Chief of Police

At AchieveForum, we talk about Leadership all the time. And our clients all seek effective leaders, not just managers. So I am always alert for examples of inspiring and authentic leadership.

The entire United States and world saw an example of authentic leadership recently, in the wake of an outrageous and tragic shooting of five police officers in a major U.S. city. For now, put aside your leadership books and models that provide lists about effective leadership. Let’s look at what David Brown, Chief of Police in Dallas, did. As a deranged man killed five police officers and wounded seven others at a peaceful rally and as chaos erupted in the streets, Brown remained calm, candid and courageous. What struck me most is how authentic he was in his responses.

What is Authentic Leadership?

Many have written about what authentic leadership means and, of course, there are different points of view. However, most agree on at least three qualities of authentic leaders.

Authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine

Authentic leaders are aware of their strengths, their limitations and their emotions. They also show their real selves to others; truly authentic leaders aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. How they lead in public mirrors how they lead their private lives — they keep it real, not fake. They don’t hide their mistakes or vulnerabilities out of fear of appearing weak.

David Brown, although stone-faced at times, did not attempt to hide his emotions during his press conferences following the shootings. He was strong and resolute, but also, genuinely sad and tearful. Norman, Okla., Police Chief Keith Humphrey has known Brown in a professional capacity for almost a decade. Humphrey was quoted by Time in the aftermath of the tragedy:

David is an amazing leader. What you see is what you get on TV. He’s not putting on an act, and he’s definitely not performing for the media. David cares. He’s hurting.”

And, although public leaders are often expected to be secular, David Brown did not shy away from vocalizing his personal Christian faith during and after the Dallas shootings. He publicly called on God to guide him in handling the crisis and also called for the public to pray for the police officers and the department at large. Brown’s pastor, Rev. Tony Evans, had this to say following the shootings as quoted by the Dallas Morning News:

“Brown believes in bedrock Christian doctrine — faithful submission to God’s plan followed by an eternal reward. He sees his job as a ‘divine assignment’ and brings a Biblical perspective to all his decision-making. …Brown doesn’t compartmentalize his personal life and his professional life — he brings the same awareness of God to both.”

Authentic Leaders Manage Fear

They possess the courage to act ethically and transparently as they continue to push through their own fear, as well as the fear of others, to achieve the goals.

During a complex and terrifying crisis involving an armed gunman, armed officers, and armed protesters, Brown led his police force to evacuate the wounded and dead, isolate the shooter and save civilians’ lives… all with remarkable constraint.

Immediately after the shootings, Brown was quick to communicate the situation clearly—and truthfully–to the public. Brown gave details about what happened and what the suspect said during negotiations with police and disclosed how they decided to use a robot bomb. And…acknowledging and respecting both protestors and police officers, but not the violent man who acted individually, he said: “We had an adequate amount of officers on the scene, and we were blocking traffic and doing all the things to protect people’s right to protest, and their free speech. We are not going to let a coward who would ambush police officers change our democracy. We are not going to do it. Our city, our country, is better than that.”

Authentic Leaders Lead With Their Hearts (and Their Minds)

They are not afraid to show their emotions, their vulnerability and to connect with their employees. Communicating in a direct manner is critical to successful outcomes, but more effective when it’s done with empathy. Without empathy, being tough and direct can be harsh or unkind.

During his news conference following the shooting, Brown spoke in a halting manner, but remained composed. But he didn’t hide the pain of seeing his officers ambushed. “We’re hurting… We are heartbroken… There are no words to describe the atrocity that occurred to our city” he said.

And, in the days following the shooting, Brown spoke bluntly about some tough truths. “The police don’t feel supported in their communities. Society dumps its problems on the backs of cops and unreasonably expects the police to solve them.

Most notably, Brown demonstrated genuine empathy for the slain officers, the victims of police shootings and their families. This is a man who truly knows the heartbreak from every side. In 1988, his police academy classmate and former partner was shot dead on duty. A few years later, Brown’s brother was killed by drug dealers. And, on Father’s Day in 2010, his 27-year-old-son shot and killed a man, then killed the first police officer on the scene before being gunned down himself. To lead his police force and city, with the reminder of his own deep, personal tragedies, was impressive.

Brown, with his authoritative calm and emotional honesty in the face of enormous stress and heartbreak, is a role model for all police chiefs and for all leaders who aspire to develop an authentic personal brand of leadership.

Leave a Comment