10 leadership Principles For Security Operations

The following are ten hands-on, field leadership principles that I have personally found to be very useful for private sector security operations. Not only have I successfully applied these leadership principles myself, I have also taught them to other field leaders, and watched how they too have had success with them. Though these principles come from over fifteen years of my own leadership experience (starting in the IDF and going into the private sector), I’m not setting myself up here as an exemplar. In fact, the pitfalls and mistakes I discuss here have all been made by me as well. This is a lessons-learned type article I wanted to share with all of you.

Anyways, here goes:

1. Plan to adapt

One of the most important, and often neglected, points about operational planning is that it should give you a platform from which to adapt and change when things don’t pan out the way you thought they would. Put together the best plan you can, but try to avoid falling in love with it, and then rigidly forcing it onto a situation that’s already changed. A good plan should fit the situation, not the other way around. When the facts on the ground start changing, your plan should adjust accordingly. I’m not saying you should immediately abandon your plan as soon as things change, just that a plan should be more of a platform to operate off of, rather than a scripting of future events.

The realities in the field have a funny way of toying with prior expectations. The celebrated quote by Helmuth von Moltke (‘Moltke the Elder’) that “No plan survives contact with the enemy” holds very true – as his nephew, ‘Moltke the Younger’, painfully found out in 1914 (WWI history buffs – I’m a huge one myself – will know what I’m talking about). If you prefer an updated version of this, Mike Tyson captured it perfectly with “Everyone has a plan till’ they get punched in the mouth”. I’m not saying you’ll get punched every time you go out into the field, but the likelihood of it is very high, and your plan should reflect that.
Good security leaders have a flexible mindset, and the best leaders I’ve seen not only know how to roll with the punches, but actually enjoy rolling with them.

2. Simple!

As soon as you take into account that the reality in the field will almost always differ from expectations, and that original plans will often have to be modified, you should realize that plans must be simple. If a plan is too complex, it will be very difficult to tweak and adjust it on the fly. You yourself might be OK with it, but the plan is not just for you – you have a whole security team to lead. If they already have to deal with a complex plan, it’s very likely you’ll lose them as soon as you start making adjustments to it.
A good plan is more of a platform than a script. Keep it simple!

3. How to deliver a good pre-operational briefing

Many field security leaders tend to struggle when it comes to pre-operational briefs. They understand exactly what needs to be done, and why, but get all twisted up when they try to convey it to their subordinates.

A concise and effective brief should cover:

  1. The strategic mission – what the client needs.
  2. Our tactical mission – what we’re here to do, and how it serves the larger strategic mission.
  3. Methods and tools of achieving our tactical mission.
  4. Parameters, boundaries and limits to our tactical mission.
  5. Methods of communication.

These five points should be generally applied to the mission as a whole, and specifically applied to each individual post.

Very importantly, be sure to cover the Why factor. Beyond the methods of achieving the mission, do you (the operator) understand why the mission is important and why your specific role is important for accomplishing this mission?

If possible, test your team members by asking them to brief you back on the above mentioned. This will show you if they’re able take ownership of their individual missions, and perform well even without constant supervision.

4. Work for your subordinates

Many people miss the point that leadership is a type of relationship, and just like any other relationship, it’s a two-way street. Yes, team members work for their leader, but a leader also works for their team members. In many ways, a leader needs his/her subordinates more than they need him/her. Leadership is a strange kind of business where the quality of your performance is evaluated on the basis of what other people (your subordinates) do. You yourself could be a fantastic security operator but your leadership skills are not judged by how well you operate, they’re judged by how well your team members operate. In a weird kind of way, your reputation as a leader is held hostage by your subordinates. I’m not saying your relationship with your subordinates should be like some hostage negotiation, just that beyond the warm camaraderie you should develop with them, you should also keep in mind how much you need them. Take good care of your team, and treat them well.

An interesting thing that happens when you take good care of your team is that it gets noticed by clients – and they tend to really like and respect it. Most people think that a service provider only needs to take care of their client, but I’ve gotten many compliments over the years for how well I take care of my teams, and how well the teams tend to perform because of this. So, once again, take very good care of your team.

5. All-or-nothing type leadership

A common security leadership mistake I’ve seen over the years is the ‘you’re in or out’, ‘my way or the highway’ style of management. On the face of it, this might look like a solid, no-nonsense type of leadership, but I beg to differ. I’m not saying there aren’t situations where things simply must be done a certain way, no arguments, I’m saying that if you’re in it for the long haul, this type of leadership isn’t really sustainable – or good. All or nothing is just too simple – too simplistic actually – and leaders who try to tell you that this is just their style, that they don’t babysit or hold hands, are actually telling you that they don’t really know how to properly lead. Anyone can set rules and then kick out subordinates who deviate – a machine could do that. Leadership is about motivating people, and getting them to willingly sign on to the mission. No, it’s not always simple, and no, it’s not hand-holding either, it’s just good leadership.

6. How to handle weak team members

Almost any security leader has to face the fact that you’re not always going to have an A-Team under you, and that you can’t always just get rid of weaker team members.

From my experience, the best way to handle underperforming security operators is to pull them aside, tell them how important they are to the mission, and how you personally need them to deploy the top-notch skill-set you know they have. Is there a bit of mental Jiu-Jitsu going on here? You bet your ass there is. It doesn’t matter if you don’t necessarily feel the operator has a good skill-set, this kind of encouragement tends to put some wind behind people’s sails. They might still be weak, but at least they’ll try harder, and make it easier for you to accomplish the mission.

Now, does this type of motivation always work? Of course not. And there might eventually be a need to take stricter measures with a weaker team member, but reserve those unfortunate options for later – after you’ve tried the positive approach. Remember, leadership is mostly about guiding and motivating, not reprimanding and firing.

One common mistake you’ll want to avoid is sending weak or untrustworthy team members out of sight, to man some quiet back entrance. It’s probably a good idea to give them a less critical job, but keep in mind that the seemingly appealing idea of posting them out of sight might do more harm than good. You usually need solid operators for the slow, boring corners, where operators aren’t closely observed and managed. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. If you’re stuck with an untrustworthy operator, post them where you can keep an eye on them.

7. Leading up the chain

I’ve talked about leading down the chain of command – motivating your subordinates – but you should also try to lead up the chain of command, all the way up to the clients who hired you. You obviously have to be very tactful here, but it’s very important to instill calm, control and a feeling of security in your client. That’s after all what they hired you for. Many people tend to forget that at its core, under all the layers of physical operations, systems and protocols, security is a feeling we are hired to provide – not for us, for our clients. And a good security leader knows how to instill this feeling in their client.

8. Self-control
Simply put, if you can’t control yourself, how will you control, or lead, others? Think of it from their perspective – why would a subordinate want to follow someone who can’t control themselves? It’s not that they can’t follow you, it’s that they probably won’t want to – and getting people to want to follow you is what leadership is about.

The biggest problem in maintaining self-control is that you often don’t realize when and how you tend to lose it. The key to fixing this is to develop good self-awareness and empathy. Try to look at yourself from the outside. How do you appear to others? How are you coming across? How is your tone of voice affecting the people you’re addressing? How would you be affected by it if you were being addressed in that manner? Try to notice how fast and loud you’re talking. Try to notice what expression you have on your face.
The key to self-control is self-awareness.

9. Calm down. Slow down

Now that you got the self-control thing going, use it to calm down and slow down. Many people tend to forget how important this is, especially during stressful crunch-times. A calmer disposition has two important functions: First, it will help you make better decisions. It’s like being a quarterback – even when everything is erupting around you, and you’re about to get tackled, calm down, look around and make a decision. The second function has to do with the above mentioned self-reflection thing. Regardless of whether you personally can handle a frenzied pace of running and yelling orders, how do you think you come across to your subordinates and clients when you do this? I get it, you want to set a good example, lead from the front and create a good tempo, but the line between that and coming across as confused and frantic is quite thin and easily crossed. It’s usually more important for a leader to instill calm and control, and it starts with calming and controlling yourself first.

Slow down. Take a few deep breaths. Do you need to go to the bathroom? When’s the last time you had a drink of water or grabbed something to eat? Run your index finger over that little area between your eyebrows. Is it creased up in a frown?
Calm down. Slow down. Look around, and make better decisions.

10. Know thyself!

Leadership is all about people, and understanding people starts with understanding yourself. Beyond understanding how leadership works in principle, if you want to learn how you yourself can be a good leader, you’ll have to figure out what kind of leader you are. Leadership comes in many forms, and from many types of people. Try not to emulate too closely leaders who are very different from you. You’ll probably just have a bad time struggling with it, and then come across as phony.
Know who you are, and be you.

Some people have a permanent leadership disposition that comes across both on and off the job, while others (like me) have to switch it on when the need arises. Some leaders are older and more distinguished, while others are younger and more energetic. Some lead with lots of gusto, while others have more of a quiet intensity to them. Whatever the case may be, know who you are and figure out your personal style of leadership.

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