The nation has become acquainted with Dallas Police Chief David Brown in recent days. He has appeared numerous times to speak to the public, making himself highly visible both during and after the attacks. Facing a situation in which no leader ever wants to find himself, Chief Brown has led with grace and courage. His words have galvanized a beleaguered police force and inspired a community to come together. His leadership is no accident but is built from years of struggle and personal development.
A New York Times profile, describing Chief Brown as “Calm at Center of Crisis,” recounted how he dealt with the personal tragedy of his own son, who shot and killed a police officer before being killed himself in the confrontation. More recently, he has faced opposition to his leadership from within his own department. In September 2015, Chief Brown fired an officer who was videotaped using aggressive force in a skirmish with a panhandler, but the Dallas Police Association and others sided with the officer and criticized Brown’s action. He narrowly survived that episode along with others that threatened his standing as police chief.
The adversity he has faced has shaped him, and the leadership we are seeing on a national stage now is directly related to how he has chosen to face that kind of adversity. Instead of becoming jaded and self-protective, Chief Brown has allowed the challenges of his past to make him more humble and compassionate, two characteristics that often are not present in leaders thrust in the limelight during a tragedy.
I can best describe his leadership during this crisis as authentic. Two specific aspects of his authenticity stand out. First, how he has let his personal faith be a key part of how he has led, and second, the way he has communicated with the public.
Bill George’s noteworthy book on authentic leadership, True North, explores five components of an authentic leader, one being that these kinds of leaders lead from their heart. In other words, they don’t present different images of themselves, like an actor playing a role. Instead, certain characteristics guide them in every circumstance. Chief Brown has always been vocal about his Christian faith, but unlike other leaders, he has not shied away from mentioning it as he’s handled this crisis.
On Thursday night, as the tragedy was taking place, Chief Brown appeared with Mayor Mike Rawlings two times to provide brief press conferences to update the public on what was happening. Both men set the tone for how they would handle the tragedy by calling for the public to pray for the police officers and the department at large. It is difficult to overstate how remarkable that was, given the increasingly secular tone of public discourse.
The next day, Chief Brown and Mayor Rawlings called together an interfaith prayer service, and Chief Brown again spoke from his personal faith, citing Scripture and his belief that God would lead the department through this crisis. On Monday, just a few days removed, the city held a candlelight vigil honoring the lives of the five officers who were killed in the shooting. At the event, Chief Brown reaffirmed his belief that God would guide the department through the tragedy, specifically citing the death and resurrection of Jesus as the reason for this faith.
Again, it is difficult to overstate how amazing this kind of leadership is given our nation’s increasing march toward civic secularism. Most experts would never advise a public leader to mention his faith like Chief Brown has, worried that it would alienate others. However, people need to see that their leaders are profoundly impacted by the tragedies that occur and need to see how they are handling it. In these public appearances, Chief Brown has come across as a real person, not someone who is being fed lines behind the scenes by a consultant or public relations expert.
Chief Brown has spoken in language that normal people can understand, and such speech has enhanced people’s respect for him. We are used to leaders speaking in vague generalities, hedging what they really mean behind what they think is politically correct. Chief Brown, though, has spoken with honesty, delivering lines like “We don’t feel much support most days; let’s not make today one of those days.”
Chief Brown’s authentic leadership has ministered to a public that is fractured and hurting. Like a pastor, he has comforted those who are mourning and has provided true hope by pointing to God’s ability to heal the wounds of tragedy. His leadership is no accident. It has emerged from the trials and difficulties of his past, and the way he has shown grace, honesty, courage, and care for his followers is something that all leaders can learn from. In an age that desperately needs heroes, Chief Brown may be one of our best candidates.