SWAT – Leadership and Crisis Management

Kester, DOn

This week’s show features Lt. Don Kester. We are going to learn about leadership and crises management, and what it takes to be a leader in today’s complex, crises driven society where traits diplomacy and safety are key to our well-being at work and at home.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Lt. Don Kester is a remarkable human being. I was fortunate enough to meet him where I was actually introduced by our former US Surgeon General, Rich Carmona. I came out to Tucson about five years ago doing some leadership training for Second Recon Forces Marines as well as a number of other leadership organizations at Canyon Ranch. I was delightfully introduced to Lt. Kester. Don was just such a sweet guy, surprised the heck out of me, he’s probably giggling to himself. He actually asked me if I would be so kind as to introduce my concepts from What Happy Companies Know to his senior staff. I’ll let him talk to you a little bit more about that.

It included both SWAT leaders, sergeants, lieutenants, captains and commanders in the area. Before I get off track, let me tell you a little bit about this remarkable human being.

Lt. Don Kester is currently a SWAT Tactical Response Commander. After having served as a SWAT Team Operator. He is the 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. We’ll have Don talk to you a little bit about what Taser is and how it influences his work.

He’s also a Firearm’s Defensive Tactics and Use of Force Instructor and both teaches and publishes on the subjects of tactical specialties like rapid deployment, hostage rescue, incident command, and leadership. We are going to learn how SWAT develops leaders for uncertain times. So welcome, Lt. Don Kester.

Lt. Don Kester: Good morning Cathy. That was quite and introduction, I think you very much.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: You’re welcome.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Don, maybe just to start off for our audience; what does SWAT stand for and then we always like to begin our show with you telling us a little bit about what influenced you in your career as being a leader. So first of all, what is SWAT for folks that don’t know?

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 them they call the SWAT teams. It’s really the Special Forces unit 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 AK’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: Okay, good, excellent.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Can you tell us a little bit about who influenced you as a leader, and some of their influences; then we’ll get into some of the specifics of SWAT team.

Lt. Don Kester: Absolutely. My father, actually, had a very influential leadership impact on me from a very early age. While that is certainly not unique for many people, it seemed a little bit strange to me because my dad did not talk very much. He was a very quiet man. He did teach me through his actions, the value of hard work and commitment. He let his expectations of me be known through his actions even though he very rarely used words. I witnessed how his peers and his subordinates at his work viewed him with respect and admiration. That really had a big impact on me from a personal standpoint.

Professionally, there have been numerous people mostly in the SWAT arena who have worked with me or guided me in the area of leadership. I was lucky enough to get introduced or have the opportunity to work with influential SWAT leaders from around the country through my capacity with the National Tactical Officers Association. That allowed me a chance to create relationships that to this day have a significant impact on my thoughts on leadership. We are always bouncing ideas off of each other.

Of course, my fellow team members who I have worked with throughout the years and continue to work with, always provide me with leadership knowledge and influences and challenges as well. So really, a broad variety of individuals have impacted me.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Relly, one of the things that has always impressed me about Lt. Kester, and I have known him now for about five years, is his humility. As you can hear even in his voice, he’s a very humble individual. I think that as we talk about the leadership qualities in a SWAT team, we will probably think about people who are very ego-based and kind of macho, and people who might be more 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; 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 team 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 had 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’s 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 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 aren’t necessarily written expectations, although some of them are, but most of them are not written expectations as much as in the 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.

Now, that’s 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 not necessarily visible.

I personally focus on what I refer to as AED, or Attitude, Energy & Desire. In order to be an effective and true leader, it’s my belief that you must focus on these three areas all 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 obviously all susceptible to. Of course, I don’t care what anybody says, it takes a lot of energy to be an effective leader and that is why many people don’t want to be effective or they don’t become effective leaders. It’s because they don’t want to put forth the effort which requires that energy.

Then the D part of that is the desire. People have to desire to be an effective leader, in my opinion, and many people simply don’t want the pressure or the risk that is associated with that. I think you have to strive and have to have a burning desire to be effective. Anybody who is not doing that, in my mind, really I wouldn’t use the term leader with them in that case anyway.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Don, can you tell us how someone gets invited to be a SWAT member. What is the criteria?

Lt. Don Kester: Well each team is slightly different but they are generally about the same with regards to requirements to apply for a SWAT team. They have to be on the department for a certain number of years. The process is advertised and they submit a resume and an interest memo. Then they go through the selection process which includes decision making skills, firearms skills, physical fitness, reviews with their supervisors and of course if they are lucky enough to make it to an oral board interview, that is a very in-depth interview.

There is some subjectivity to it as well as the obvious pass/fail criteria. It’s very difficult to do and get through. We don’t look for SWAT people, we don’t test them on SWAT abilities. We look for the best street officers, the best people that make the best decisions out there while they are responding to calls and assisting people.

Those people are usually the ones that have the most success when they come onto SWAT.

Want to hear the complete interview? You can listen above.


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