The Modern Knight – Submission to Authority, Part 1

by Kevin Woodside

Rather than starting by trying the find the best current thinking or new leadership ideas, lets begin with some old ones and see how they stand up. Robert Vernon, retired LAPD #2 guy and founder of the Pointman Leadership Institute, offers the “Ten Ancient Principles.”  The first on the list is Submission to Authority.

I think we can all agree that for an orderly society to exist we  must submit to authority, prisons are full of folks who don’t buy that. But submission often feels like weakness. As police officers we are expected to be the authority, we need to be powerful so we can protect the weak.  Does it make any sense that submission is so important that it rates #1 on the list? The truth is that submission to authority is the source of your legitimate power.

Think of legitimate authority like a column. To be strong it must be straight. Each block that forms the column must be properly aligned or it will fail. You are a block somewhere in that column, not at the top, but just as certainly not at the bottom. Everyone of us lives somewhere in the middle. You can construct a similar illustration for any system of authority, but for a police officer consider this column:

The U.S. Constitution
Local, State, Federal Laws
Police Department General Orders
The Police Chief & Command Staff
Police Sergeant
Police Officer
Members of the Community

As a police officer you may feel all of that authority crushing down on you, the politics, the restrictions of the law, general orders that seem overcomplicated and don’t always make sense, the proclamations of a chief who you rarely see or the demands of a sergeant you do see, but not always eye-to-eye. While all these may create stress, these sources of legitimate authority give you righteous authority as a police officer. You can see that no single person in the column is the source of authority. Any power you have is delegated to you in order for you to do your job. You stay under the authority that begins at the top and your legitimately delegated authority carries the entire weight of society and the strength of everything above you in the entire column. But step out from under it and you lose it.

It is critical to recognize illegitimate authority in others so that you do not follow the wrong leader and it is critical to recognize it in yourself so you do not become abusive. History is full of leaders exercising personal authority leading to abuse and on to disaster. Hitler, Stalin, every tyrant dictator you can name fell into this trap – and those that followed went right along with them. It starts small and grows unchecked when a leader is not subject to accountability, left free to exercise power he or she sees as their own, rather than delegated from a higher authority.

For a police officer straying from this can begin as simply as responding, “Because I say so,” to a violator questioning a command. Its not the words themselves, but the distinction between them and “because the law requires it” or “because its department policy.” Perceiving that the power belongs to you is the first step on the slippery slope of abuse and corruption. The first step is a tiny one, a slight change in attitude or perspective. Be on guard for it.

In a very real sense all authority we have is delegated, none of it belongs to us. Self service and pride are the enemies of legitimate authority, humility is the inoculation. More on that to come…

Editor’s Note: The Modern Knight is written and maintained by my colleague, Kevin Woodside. More of his teachings on the timeless principles of character can be found on his Modern Knight website. I appreciate Kevin’s commitment to character and his permission to publish this work on the Police Dynamics Media Blog.