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What Law Enforcement Leaders Can Learn From ‘Halsey’s Typhoon’

What Law Enforcement Leaders Can Learn From ‘Halsey’s Typhoon’

“Halsey’s Typhoon” is an outstanding study in leadership.

By Matt Heins

Management, under the best of circumstances, is challenging. Committed leaders are constantly searching for the perfect balance between achieving the organization’s goals and ensuring that they are safeguarding the well-being of their employees. In a highly functional organisation, these two forces are aligned. When they are opposed, it becomes blatantly obvious to employees and external stakeholders, exhibited by a dysfunctional organization.

“Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, is a gripping story of Admiral William Halsey and his Third Fleet assigned to assist General Douglas MacArthur’s triumphant return. to the Philippines in December 1944 in the Pacific Theater. As the story unfolds, operational plans are quickly affected when the Third Fleet unknowingly sails into Typhoon Cobra, forcing Admiral Halsey to make excruciating decisions about prioritizing the men’s mission or safety. As conditions deteriorate, vital communication breaks down, new obstacles are presented and indecision takes over. The challenges and burdens of leadership take center stage in this unique story of the human spirit and resilience.

Dangers of making decisions

Complacency and assumptions are often found to be the main ingredients in leadership failure. In law enforcement today, the demands are many and come at lightning speed, requiring managers to process an enormous amount of information to make quick decisions. To manage the workload, human nature conditions us to make the same or similar decisions when presented with circumstances that have a somewhat similar set of facts. This is where the perils of decision making can arise for managers.

As the weather began to take a turn for the worse, Admiral Halsey assumed from experience that he was dealing with a tropical storm. With very little forethought, he decided, based on his knowledge of dealing with previous storms, that he could ride out the threat and it would have little impact on the invasion plans, which went full steam ahead. These assumptions put the Third Fleet into a deadly battle with Mother Nature that resulted in the deaths of nearly 800 men.

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Managers must take the time to analyze the facts of each problem presented. Care must be taken not to assume that a problem is like any other, resulting in impulsive decisions based on the belief that they worked before, so they should work again. Time permits – which is the case a high percentage of the time – seeking different opinions, studying the material, asking “why” five times, or waiting a period after a decision is made to reconsider and confirm that it is correct is easy yet effective methods to protect oneself against wrong choices.

Leadership styles

Leadership style varies from person to person. Developing leaders should be well read and diversify their experiences so that they can observe and emulate leadership styles that are effective and suit them. The responsibility for an entire organization rests on a manager’s shoulder. While this can result in tremendous pressure, managers often forget that if they develop the right style, a comprehensive support system can be in place to alleviate some stress.

Admiral Halsey developed a reputation as a hard-charging, demanding leader. One extract from the book gives a clear picture of his style, “No sailor in the Pacific dared question Halsey’s acumen, intuition or seamanship.” At one point, commanders did not want to spill ballast and refuel, which could take up to 10 hours, for fear of keeping an anxious Halsey waiting, even though it meant their ships risked capsizing.

Leaders must create an atmosphere that accepts input and different perspectives. Those on the front lines often have the most insightful feedback on operational issues. Systems, if not properly designed for input, can cause a decision to go lopsided from the starting point, at the top, to the implementation on the street. Managers must cultivate open and honest feedback to make the best possible decisions. You must be willing to hear the bad news and not “shoot the messenger” if you hope to make sound decisions based on factual and accurate information. The reputation as an input seeker will open the floodgates for information.

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The ability to adapt

A manager’s willingness to adapt, change or modify a decision is essential to achieving strategic goals. I am convinced that no decision is final, and there is always time or opportunity to stop, reconsider and change course if the facts prove necessary. Being able to admit that a decision was wrong or that there was a better way will show employees that you are willing to listen and change your mind.

In the autumn of 1944, plans moved forward with the invasion of the Philippines. Countless staff hours, resources and materials had been spent and committed to the plan. Admiral Halsey commented in the court of inquiry: “The thought of striking Luzon was uppermost in his mind right up to the last minute.” There was tremendous pressure to continue pushing forward, regardless of the growing number of facts that indicated a typhoon was developing, to see the operation through to completion. Focusing on the results, regardless of the information that continued to pour in, indicating a growing threat to the Third Fleet and its men, resulted in a disaster of monumental proportions.

Finding the balance

“Halsey’s Typhoon” is an outstanding study in leadership. The challenges faced by leaders during a major offensive in World War II apply today in the ever-changing environment of law enforcement. This fast-paced, fascinating and harrowing tale of missed opportunities, communication breakdowns and tunnel vision that overlooks important clues is a must-read for developing leaders or those with a continuous improvement mindset.

To find the balance between strategic success and employee well-being, leaders must constantly evaluate the environment, identify the threats and opportunities, and be prepared to change course, stop, or retreat to fight another day. A willingness to admit you made a wrong decision, seek advice from others, consider the whole picture and avoid becoming complacent are all hallmarks of a good leader. Management is a team effort. Your employees will either ensure success or failure. As the leader, you decide which one it will be. Be safe!

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About the author

Matt Heins, ARM, AINS, ASP, worked for the Jackson Police Department from 1989 until his retirement in December 2017. He worked in various assignments beginning with patrol and through the ranks until he was named Chief of Police in December 2007. In 2011, he became assigned additional responsibility as Fire Chief under the title of Director of Police and Fire Services. In January 2017, he was hired as chief security officer for Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson, Michigan. In March 2018, he was hired as a loss control specialist at Meadowbrook Insurance for the Michigan Municipal League.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in public administration from Western Michigan University. He is a former graduate of the Leadership Academy, the Northwestern School of Police Staff and Command and the FBI National Academy. He has been an assistant professor at Jackson College as well as Siena Heights University. He currently serves as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Jackson College.

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