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Public Safety Leadership: What it Takes to be a Top-Notch Manager

By Michael Beshears, professor of criminal justice at American Military University

Being an effective manager is critical in all professions, but it is especially important for those working in the various fields associated with public safety. Police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical service personnel require people who have the tools and skills to be top-notch managers and leaders. What does it take to be a leader in public safety?

Management and leadership is a craft that demands specific tools. However, quality managerial tools are not forged easily. It takes hard work, diligence and dedication to improve one’s knowledge, skills and understanding of people. Such tools are forged through education, an empathetic understanding of people (an ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to make good managerial decisions in the best interest of the subordinate and the organization), and of course hands-on experience.

A Master Mechanic’s Toolbox
“When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail” (Maslow, 1966).

Manager's toolboxLet us use the following analogy to further explain my toolbox of management concept. A master mechanic’s toolbox is organized and contains several tools. When the master mechanic examines a needed repair he/she does so with the exact tool or tools required. The true master mechanic seldom, if ever, has to return to one’s toolbox, because a real master knows the specific tool needed. This requires education, experience, and understanding of one’s craft.

A “shade tree” mechanic (an amateur mechanic) may have a toolbox with few or several tools, but the tools are usually not organized and the correct tool is seldom selected the first time. The shade tree mechanic usually attempts to apply the wrong tool or simply tries to make do with what they have. The master mechanic, on the other hand, never makes do but seeks to ensure optimal performance by applying their craft to the best of their abilities.

Have you ever known a shade tree manager, (phrase coined by Michael L. Beshears), a person who may have the title of manager, but seldom repairs or makes adjustments for optimal performance? I submit that most likely you have encountered such individuals in various managerial positions. To avoid becoming a shade tree manager; do not limit your managerial toolbox to only a hammer. It is important to educate yourself. Read about and study management and continue to learn as much as you can about your chosen field. “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers” (Truman, nd).

The Importance of Education
“Education is the mother of leadership” (Willkie, 1943).

Add tools to your managerial toolbox by taking advantage of every opportunity to learn more about managerial concepts and theories via continuing education courses. However, remember when reading and studying different concepts and theories you do so with an open mind and do not discount any theories. It is okay to agree or disagree with a concept or theory, but do not discard it. In fact, the educational journey should be full of disagreement, valid argument, and debate over theories. The key word here is valid, that is, information that supports one’s arguments with scholarly research rather than from unreliable and/or biased sources. In other words, be on the lookout for confirmation bias from unreliable non-scholarly sources i.e., from classmate know-it-alls, non-scholarly online sources, or from previously known shade tree managers.

An education will not only add more managerial tools to your toolbox, it will begin your educational journey to be a master at your chosen craft as a quality manager/leader. Remember an education in itself does not make one a top-notch manager/leader—top-notch managers know the value of actively listening to colleagues, as well as subordinates. They have an empathetic understanding of people and basic human nature.

The Value of Understanding People
“If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him, as if he were what he ought to be, he will become what he ought to be and could be” (Geothe, 1842).

An empathetic understanding of people and human nature in general is a primary tool that should constantly be improved upon in the craft of management and/or leadership. A quality manager/leader understands that people may be simple, complex and/or multifaceted, as each person is driven by different motivators above and beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Simply put: Self-actualization is different for each individual depending on what is important to that individual and their stage in life e.g., a 50 year old cannot be managed the same as a 30 year old as each is in a different stage in their life. The shade tree manager often fails to understand this basic reality. This is due to their lack of an empathetic understanding of people and human nature in general. Or, it may simply be that theshade tree manager has not been adequately trained or educated in the importance of empathy and the understanding of human nature. In addition, the shade tree manager may lack the hands-on experience and/or lack the maturity it takes to deal with others as a manager. As a result this type of manager tends to manage by fear, where every problem resembles a nail.

Remember, the understanding of human nature and people in general is a primary tool that should constantly be improved upon in the craft of management or leadership. People who have the ability to empathize with others usually know how to talk with and motivate others to overcome obstacles. These individuals are usually able to break communication barriers and achieve both positive organizational results and earn respect from others.

I submit that it should be every manager’s ambition to become a top-notch manager, continually seeking to fill his or her toolbox and seeking to master such tools in an effort to lead people efficiently and effectively.

Who would you rather work for, someone who thinks they’re unapproachable or untouchable or someone who is willing to listen to you with empathy? I would submit the latter.

About the Author: Michael L. Beshears has two B.S. degrees, one in psychology and another in criminal justice from Drury University. He also has two graduate degrees, a M.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a M.A. in health services management from Webster University. Mike is a retired senior noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army. His 22-year active duty career includes work with the Special Forces, as well as assisting other agencies in their performance of criminal investigations. He has an extensive background in emergency medicine and intensive care medical treatment, as a Special Forces medic, emergency medical technician and licensed practical nurse. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in business with a concentration in criminal justice. Mike is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University & American Public University and is full-time faculty in the School of Public Service & Health. You can contact him at michael.beshears(at)


Goethe, J. W. (1842). Faust: Eine Tragodie. C. Van der Post.

Maslow, A. H. (1966). The psychology of science: A reconnaissance. New York: Harper & Row.

Truman, H.S. (nd). Goodreads. Retrieved from

Willkie, W. L. (1943). Freedom and the Liberal Arts. The American Scholar, 12(2), 135-142.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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