SWAT: Emotional Intelligence in Leadership and Crisis Management

Kester, DOn

Lt. Don Kester, currently a SWAT Tactical Response commander after having served as a SWAT Team Operator, Team Leader, and Team Supervisor in one of the largest US border zones, Tucson, Arizona. Lt. Kester has served as a Patrol District Commander, as the departments training director and is certified as an instructor by the FBI and a master instructor for TASER International. He is also a Firearms, Defensive Tactics and Use of Force Instructor. He both teaches and publishes on the subjects of tactical specialties like Rapid Deployment, Hostage Rescue, Incident Command, and Leadership.

What does it take to be a leader in today’s complex crisis driven society where traits like diplomacy and safety are key to all our wellbeing at work and at home? Today we are going to learn how SWAT develops leaders for uncertain times.

Dr.Relly Nadler: What does SWAT stand for?

Lt. Don Kester: SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. SWAT started in the LA area in the late 60’s and has expanded throughout the country and around the world. It is a very popular concept among law enforcement agencies. SWAT teams basically handle the highest risk critical incidents that occur in law enforcement, as we like to say sometimes, when the cops need assistance or need help then they call the SWAT teams. So it is really the special forces units of the law enforcement community.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Don, would it be fair to say, that what we see a lot of on television when we see the guys in the black uniforms show up at the most dramatic scenes with their AKA’s and their rifles kind of out in front of them, those are the SWAT guys?

Lt. Don Kester: Those are the SWAT guys with a Hollywood touch, certainly.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: One of the things that has always impressed me about Lt. Kester, and I have known him now for about 4 years, is his humility, as you can hear in his voice, he is a very humble individual. I think as we talk about the leadership qualities in the SWAT team we will probably think about people who are very ego based and kind of macho and people who might be more, if you will, kind of military in their mental model. I think as you’ll hear just in listening to Lt. Kester, that is in fact not what they need when they are in stressful situations dealing with the public and that in fact diplomacy and incident management is really what is needed. I think Don, if we can move on a little bit in our questions, maybe, given what I experienced with you at your annual meeting, tell us a little bit about your career and how you are developing leadership qualities in the SWAT teams that you personally are responsible for.

Lt. Don Kester: I started my career as a patrol deputy just like many other law enforcement officers. I have worked a lot in training and I joined SWAT pretty early in my career after going through their selection process. Joining SWAT was probably the best and most influential decision of my career. That is really what got me introduced to the concept of leadership, both good and bad. It got me focused on the particular topic of leadership. I was eventually promoted to the rank of Sergeant and I was our full-time SWAT team supervisor for several years and then was promoted to my current rank of Lieutenant which has allowed me the privilege of serving as the SWAT commander since then. On our SWAT team we develop leadership qualities through a multi-pronged approach beginning with an understanding of what is expected of them as SWAT operators.

These are not necessarily written expectations, although some of them are, but most of them are not written expectations as much as in a business world perhaps, but they are critical to the success of the person and the team. My belief is that if I don’t have expectations of these SWAT operators many of them will simply go on cruise control and not push themselves or push the envelope of their leadership abilities.

That is not necessarily a huge issue on SWAT because these individuals have the inherent drive to produce top quality results which is why they are on SWAT in the first place. But we still do have to keep them focused and we have to keep them focused on the little things that are necessarily visible. I personally focus on what I refer to as AED or Attitude, Energy and Desire. In order to be an effective and true leader, it’s my belief that you must focus on these three areas all of the time in addition to, obviously, many other attributes.

An effective leader has to maintain a positive attitude and try to minimize those fluctuations in attitude that we are all susceptible to. Of course, I don’t care what anybody says, it takes a lot of energy to be an effective leader. That’s why many people really don’t want to be effective leaders or they don’t become effective leaders, is because they don’t want to put forth the effort which requires that energy. Then the “D” part of that is desire. People have to desire to be an effective leader, in my opinion. Many people simply don’t want the pressure or the risk that is associated with that. I think you have to strive and have a burning desire to be effective and anybody who is not doing that, in my mind really, I would not use the term leader with them.

Dr. Relly Nader: In thinking about that, we want to talk a little bit more about some of these Emotional Intelligence competencies and bring in the link of how that relates to decision making especially under the crisis management when emotions are flying, Cathy and I have talked about this in the past, it’s really easy to get emotionally hijacked. Sometimes I talk about the Amygdala hijack; the part of your brain that freezes up – that flight or fight response. How do you develop some of these emotional intelligence competencies in SWAT members? Do you test for it? Then maybe we can talk about what you do to raise it.

Lt. Don Kester: We really start off by making very clear expectations of our SWAT team members. Once those expectations are made clear, then we train, and we train, and we train and we put them in positions to perform up to those levels of expectation. We understand that we have to expect mistakes in training so that our personnel learn from those mistakes. If we are not willing to accept those mistakes, then our SWAT operators are not going to take any risk and they are not going to make many decisions. If they don’t do that then they are not going to grow very much in their emotional intelligence.

On my particular team the expectation is that they will develop into a leader and obviously they are varying degrees of that, but they are going to have to develop their leadership capabilities or it’s going to be difficult for them to succeed.

On the SWAT team we are very open about any issues or concerns and we hold our people very accountable. SWAT is mostly Type-A personalities and they are take-charge individuals with very strong opinions. So we have to teach them to balance those attributes, as well, along with the other characteristics that come along with emotional intelligence.

In addition to mentoring those team members, I personally will meet with individuals on a one-to-one basis on a regular schedule. That is simply to reiterate my expectations, provide them feedback, give them suggestions on how to get to the next point in their SWAT career and it lets them know that I do care. More importantly, it reminds them that they are going to get pushed and they will be getting the guidance that they need to keep them on track. Emotional Intelligence, in my opinion for a SWAT team, is critical because these individuals are obviously making life-saving decisions. They have to be emotionally stable, confident, trustworthy, they have to have self control; self initiative is a big thing we look for, and many other qualities as well.

Learn more about Emotional Intelligence in regards to training SWAT operators and how that applies to your life. Get tips ant tools to tune-up your performance, listen to the complete recording above, without commercials.

What can you do to increase your Emotional Intelligence?



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