Lessons from my Uncle Johnny

My Uncle Johnny was a police officer for more than thirty years. He was my hero. Here are a few lessons he taught me.

People Remember the Good You Do

One day Johnny took me as he went back to visit the people on a beat he’d walked a quarter century before. That afternoon, people pulled me aside to tell me stories about how he always knew which drunk to take home and which one needed to go to jail. They told about things he did to straighten out kids who were now responsible adults.

What kind of stories will people tell about you 25 years from now?

Will they tell stories about what a good boss you were and how you helped the team and team members succeed?

Learning About People

Uncle Johnny didn’t have much formal education, but he had a boatload of street smarts. Sometimes he’d take me with him to go down to the diner where my aunt worked to wait for her to get off. He’d grab a cup of coffee and buy me a milkshake, then we’d sit in one of the booths.

Johnny would pick out someone for me to observe, maybe the fellow paying his check at the cashier. Then he’d ask me what I could tell about him. After I made my best guess, Johnny would tell me what he saw. It usually went something like this.

“That fellow’s out of work,” he’d say. “He’s here in a coffee shop at 10 in the morning. He’s been looking at the paper, probably the Help Wanted ads. That’s a high-quality suit he’s wearing, but it’s starting to get a little ragged. And, look at his shoes. They’re well-shined, but he’s down at the heels.”

I still play that game with myself when I’m in a restaurant or an airport lounge. I can tell you it’s amazing how much you can learn if you’re willing to pay attention. Johnny’s way of putting that was straightforward: “People will tell you a lot about them without actually telling you anything.” He also had another line that I remember.

You can’t learn anything while you’re talking.

I still have trouble with that. How about you? Are you quietly observing so that you learn about your people and the situation? Or are you talking more than you observe?

Technology Changes How We Think

Johnny went to his grave convinced that radios got city cops hurt. The first time he said that to me, I was puzzled, so I asked him why. He told me that when he walked a beat, there we no radios. You had to handle everything that happened by yourself, so you learned how. When you can always get help, you never learn to calm things down. One big problem caused by technology is that you’ll quit learning because you don’t have to depend on your own resources anymore.

What kinds of things do you do differently today because of technology? Where have you stopped learning because you depend on technology?

You Get More of What You Reward

Johnny thought that there were two kinds of cops. Some were “crime stoppers” who headed off trouble. Others were “crime fighters” who made heroic efforts to wrestle trouble to the ground once it occurred. The promotions went to the cops who made the arrests, not the ones who prevented the need for an arrest.

Johnny thought that was nuts. For him, good police work meant not arresting anyone unless you had to, or, as he said, “Unless they gave you no choice.” If Johnny were a management consultant, he’d probably turn that into two questions.

Question one: What do you reward? Do you reward the flashy heroes who solve big problems? Or do you reward the quiet crime stoppers who set up the systems and take action to prevent problems in the first place?

Question two: Which are you? Are you a crime fighter or a crime stopper?

Bottom Line

My Uncle Johnny died decades ago, but the things I learned from him have become part of how I work and think. Now I hope they’ll do the same for you.