What Will Speak For You In Your Absence?

Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” – Shannon Alder

Police officers being promoted through the ranks have an impact on others through their leadership. What will your legacy to policing (and others) be in the distant future?

As a teenager I swore an oath to serve Queen Elizabeth II. On joining the police, I did so again, serving as constable, sergeant and inspector. Reflecting after thirty-two years, first as a Royal Marine and then as a cop, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. I’m grateful for the wonderful opportunities and proud of my contribution.

I was inspired to write this blog in part after recently watching one of my favourite films again, Dead Poet’s Society. It’s about a teacher (played by Robin Williams) who inspires his students to think for themselves and to challenge the status quo. Through the subject of poetry, he leaves a legacy in their hearts and minds to view life through different perspectives. 

It got me thinking about some individuals I was lucky enough to encounter and who inspired me to be better, to do better and to seize the day. I wanted to share these thoughts and hopefully in the process help you reflect on who or what has inspired you to embark on your journey to police leadership. 

Police officers want promotion for all sorts of reasons. For some it’s the increased pay and benefits, but for many it’s an opportunity to change things for the better, to have greater influence or to see how far they can go in developing and realising their potential. Know this: when you are awarded your ‘stripes’ or ‘pips’, you will rightly be proud, but they are not yours. You are simply a steward for the standards and values they represent.

When you hand them back at the end of your service, what will your legacy be?

Sergeants: The Guardians of Standards

Sergeant and inspector badges

Please think about your legacy because you are writing it every day.” – Gary Vaynerchuk

Securing a formal leadership position to sergeant is the first step on the police promotion journey. Sergeants are the guardians of standards, responsible for setting, communicating and reinforcing them. This is true of induction into the military and also a clear expectation of police line supervisors. The CVF might describe this ‘competency’ as ‘Deliver, Support and Inspire’. I consider myself lucky to have known some great sergeants, good role models who inspired me amongst other things to study for promotion exams and to develop as a leader myself. 

I look back to the beginning of my police career and realise just how important those individuals were. My first station Sergeant made me feel welcome, showed me around the local area and introduced me to others. Basic stuff done well. He was firm and fair, an absolute stickler for detail on my written reports, witness statements, points to prove and self – generated process. It was clear that this person cared about me. He took an interest in my learning and development, showed me the standards required and held me to them.

The three Sergeants at my next station, whilst all different, were equally professional and also led by example. Whilst their shifts overlapped, they created between them an environment where I and other officers could thrive and excel. They were always in before the section. One always remained on duty until all officers had returned safely. Observing how they managed, supported and led us was so important to me. They were writing their legacy every day, creating their leadership impact. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but they were carving it on my heart too. A legacy is something that speaks for you in your absence and I learned so much from them as individuals and collectively. Their joint legacy is that I remember them with deep respect and will never forget them. I received encouragement, support and mentoring to realise my potential. I stood on their shoulders for the next 25 years, having learned ‘what good looked like’. This provided a foundation for my career direction and to inform my thoughts and personal approach towards promotion and leadership. 

The Powerful Play Goes On…

Police leadership legacy

‘O Me! O Life’ – Poem by Walt Whitman

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring – What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here, that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

– Walt Whitman

In this poem, Whitman questions his own existence and the futility of life. He ponders the ‘endless trains of the faithless’, or the many people who, throughout his life, betray his expectations. He describes ‘cities full of foolish people‘ and reproaches himself for being no better than these faithless masses.

This poem got me thinking about the meaning of legacy and I was also inspired to write this blog following recent well-publicised current affairs, protests and events, which presents questions and challenges for UK law enforcement, policing by consent and perceptions of legitimacy. I do cover ‘What are the current challenges to policing?’ as part of my Promotion Masterclasses and it looks like I’ll need to update the list to reflect future pressures!

What Will Your Verse Be?

Police leading others to grow

“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” – Neil Postman

What does ‘the powerful play goes on’ and ‘you may contribute a verse’ actually mean? That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse…Whitman is letting us know that the fact that life exists, should provide enough drive for us to find purpose to also exist. Most importantly, he reminds us that it is in this life, ‘this powerful play’, that each of us has a pivotal role.

You don’t have to try hard to find pessimists within policing, there’s a well-used chief phrase for this known as ‘TJF‘. (The Job’s F***ed), so I’ve found that being an optimist helps in police promotion applications, if only for the reason “there does not seem to be much use in being anything else”, to quote Winston Churchill. I believe this optimism has its roots in striving to get through eight months of training to become a Royal Marine. My mental approach or ‘working strategy’ (to borrow from the NDM) repeated every day was: “One day at a time. Tomorrow’s another day.” It worked for me then and has done since, I’ve never seen a reason to change. 

I’m hoping to articulate more widely in future ‘what my verse will be’. That’s because in a professional sense, it is still very much a work in progress and developing into something that I’m incredibly proud of.  My role models left policing a while back, some who influenced me are now ‘food for worms’ or ‘fertiliser for daffodils’ as Robin Williams’ character refers to in Dead Poets Society. But their legacy lives on, actively supporting today’s generation of cops to convert their leadership aspirations into promotion success.

A Personal Perspective…

There is no death… people only die when we forget them.” – Isabel Allande

From a personal perspective, there’s a Welsh proverb: “Perfect love sometimes does not come until the first grandchild”. I now know this to be true and I’m busy carving out perhaps most the most important legacy of my life. So far it consists of unconditional love, dinosaurs, laughter, cars, rock pooling, building sandcastles (and jumping on them) and a deep sense of joy that all is well in the world. Boat trips, fishing, camping, surfing, barbecues on the beach, birthday parties, Christmases and enough memories to pack a lifetime are yet to come. To have loved unconditionally and to have been loved unconditionally are its foundations. If that is a verse I contribute, if it’s what speaks for me in my absence, I’d be happy with that. A life well lived.

Yours faithfully, Steve

If you found this blog helpful, you can hit the ground running with your promotion preparation. Get your personal digital promotion toolkit, attend my Police Promotion Masterclass or contact me to arrange personal coaching support. If you first want to explore completely free content, I have a bunch of free guides plus free blog content both here on my Rank Success Blog and via my Police Hour articles.

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