[September 27, 2017] The growth of violent crime in many American cities has been in the news lately; a surprising change to a decades’ long decline in crime. There are as many theories as to why. One explanation, however, has gained popularity and the argument is that leaders of those cities have failed to fix the small broken things.
Years ago, New York City went through a very nasty time with high levels of violence, illegal drug use, murder, and gained a reputation as a city under siege by criminals. With the election of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, out-of-control crime got the attention it deserved. Mayor Giuliani began a program with the NYPD to focus on petty crimes; those like jumping subway turnstiles, urinating on the sidewalk, etc.
Using concepts taken from the Broken Windows Theory, the city began to address small crimes and stamping out the message that no one cares and no one is watching. By fixing small crimes, the theory tells us, larger crimes will be deterred. Criminologists are now saying that those cities experiencing a jump in violent crime are the same cities that are no longer enforcing petty crime.
- For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
- For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
- For want of a horse the battle was lost,
- For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost –
- All for the want of a horse-shoe nail – Unattributed, from Fifty Famous People by James Baldwin
One of my first lessons in small unit leadership in the U.S. Army was when, as a buck sergeant, I walked past a soldier who didn’t have his hat on outside as required. Behind me, watching what I was doing, was a grisly old Sergeant Major (the most senior enlisted rank) who immediately grabbed my shirt collar and educated me on the importance of leaders fixing anything broken, even the small stuff. Walking past that soldier without a hat meant that I had just lowered leadership standards for all behaviors.
Leaders fix the small broken things but they are also responsible to fix the big stuff. Some leaders believe that fixing small things is beneath their dignity. They see themselves as being too important to lower themselves to doing the “small stuff” and in their minds exempt themselves from it. Nothing could be further from the responsibility of good leadership.
The fact is, leaders fix the small things because they are just as important as bigger things. A number of U.S. Navy ship captains have shared their stories with me about how they unexpectedly took over a ship’s command because small stuff caused a system failure to navigate properly, an outbreak of some communicable disease, or a major loss of equipment.
Small things matter. When our attention as a leader shifts off them, it gives others the idea that they are not important and permission to ignore them too. That is why leaders fix the small broken things.
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