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Great Leaders Need Humility and Self-Awareness: A Conversation with David Brown

David Brown served as a Dallas police officer for 27 years before being named chief of the Dallas Police Department in 2010. On July 7, 2016, his force lost five police officers during a standoff with a gunman, the largest attack on law enforcement officials since September 11, 2001. His calm handling of the situation drew national praise. Now a George W. Bush Institute fellow, Brown explains in Listening to Leaders why leaders must have the humility to listen and let others be right.

June 14, 2019 //   4 minute read
Chief David Brown speaks to the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program participants in 2018. (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

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This article is an excerpt from the Bush Center's latest book. Read the full interview with President George W. Bush in Listening to Leaders.

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You had a very big and risky decision to make in terms of sending in robots and explosives to end the [July 7, 2016] standoff. That strategy had been largely untested. How did you think about making that decision in a very short timeframe and high-pressure environment? 

I communicated with the SWAT team, and we went around and around several times about different strategies and potential outcomes. The group brought the strategy of using the robot and explosives to me. I didn't create that idea. 

That was like their last-ditch strategy because I had downplayed everything else. We were all exhausted, but I said, “Bring me something I can approve.” They brought this strategy. 

It was risky, but I had to be willing to listen to other people. That was the first big step in a big decision: listen to people you respect in the organization. I was willing to allow them to be right and me to be wrong. 

You had to communicate frequently with the Dallas community when those five police officers were shot. And you had to do that in a real-time basis. What was your approach like? How did you handle that high-stress situation? 

I tried to reveal who I was as a person. I tried not to be robotic or just give the facts. I tried to talk from a personal standpoint, saying this is what I have learned after 30-plus years of police work. I was exhausted, but I was trying to be authentic. 

I tapped into my internal beliefs. I shared my values as part of my communication strategy. They were formed by what I had seen work and what I had seen fail. 

This moment was the culmination of a lot of different situations that had happened in Dallas. It was an intersection of different crises, both professional and personal, during my tenure. I shared how this situation affected my values and what I thought this means to all of us since we all have similar values.

After that tragedy, you challenged the community to step forward and get involved to make difficult situations better. What have you learned about how leaders might engage others to become leaders themselves, including in their own neighborhoods and communities?

That was a direct challenge based on how I came into the profession. I believe in people getting involved to be the change they want to see, rather than expecting government to do all the work and being a spectator.

I really believed my government high school teacher, who talked about participatory democracy. That is why I joined the department. You have to affect change where you want to see it. That is why I decided I would become a police officer and save the world. Of course, that didn’t happen. But 30 years later I'm satisfied with my participation.

Participatory democracy is especially important at the local level. Change doesn't happen without it.

Read more about David Brown’s experience leading the Dallas police force in Listening to Leaders.