10 Leadership Principles For Security Operations


The following are 10 hands-on, field leadership principles that I have personally found to be very useful for private sector security operations. Not only have I successfully applied these leadership principles myself, I have also taught them to other field leaders and watched how they too have had success with them. Though these principles come from over 15 years of my own leadership experience, I am not setting myself up here as an exemplar. In fact, the pitfalls and mistakes discussed here have all been made by me as well. This is very much a lessons-learned type article.

  1. Plan to adapt

One of the most important, and often neglected, points about operational planning is that it should provide a platform from which to adapt and change when things do not pan out the way you thought they would. Put together the best plan you can, but try to avoid falling in love with it and then rigidly forcing it onto a situation that is already changed. A good plan should fit the situation, not the other way around. When the facts on the ground start changing, your plan should adjust accordingly. This does not mean you should immediately abandon your plan as soon as things change, just that a plan should be more of a platform to operate off, rather than a scripting of future events.

The realities in the field have a funny way of toying with prior expectations. The celebrated quote by Helmuth von Moltke (‘Moltke the Elder’) that “No plan survives contact with the enemy” holds very true, as his nephew, ‘Moltke the Younger’, painfully found out in 1914 (WWI history buffs will know what I am talking about). If you prefer an updated version of this, Mike Tyson captured it perfectly with, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” I am not saying you will get punched every time you go out into the field, but the likelihood of it is very high and your plan should reflect that.

Good security leaders have a flexible mindset, and the best leaders not only know how to roll with the punches, but actually enjoy rolling with them.

  1. Simple!

As soon as you take into account that the reality in the field will almost always differ from expectations and that original plans will often have to be modified, you should realise that plans must be simple. If a plan is too complex, it will be very difficult to tweak and adjust it on the fly. You personally might be okay with it, but the plan is not just for you – you have a whole security team to lead. If they already have to deal with a complex plan, it is very likely you will lose them as soon as you start making adjustments to it. A good plan is more of a platform than a script. Keep it simple!

  1. How to deliver a good pre-operational briefing

Many field security leaders tend to struggle when it comes to pre-operational briefs. They understand exactly what needs to be done, and why, but get all twisted up when they try to convey it to their subordinates.

A concise and effective brief should cover:

  1. the strategic mission – what the client needs
  2. the tactical mission – what you are here to do and how it serves the larger strategic mission
  3. methods and tools of achieving the tactical mission
  4. parameters, boundaries and limits to the tactical mission
  5. methods of communication

These five points should be generally applied to the mission as a whole and specifically applied to each individual post.

Very importantly, be sure to cover the why factor. Beyond the methods of achieving the mission, do you (the operator) understand why the mission is important and why your specific role is important for accomplishing this mission? If possible, test your team members by asking them to brief you back on the above-mentioned. This will show you if they are able take ownership of their individual missions and perform well even without constant supervision.

  1. Work for your subordinates

Many people miss the point that leadership is a type of relationship and, just like any other relationship, it is a two-way street. Yes, team members work for their leader, but a leader also works for their team members. In many ways, a leader needs his/her subordinates more than they need him/her. Leadership is a strange kind of business where the quality of your performance is evaluated on the basis of what other people (your subordinates) do. You could be a fantastic security operator, but your leadership skills are not judged by how well you operate; they are judged by how well your team members operate. In a weird kind of way, your reputation as a leader is held hostage by your subordinates. This does not mean your relationship with your subordinates should be like some hostage negotiation, just that beyond the warm camaraderie you should develop with them, you should also keep in mind how much you need them. Take good care of your team and treat them well.

An interesting thing that happens when you take good care of your team is that it gets noticed by clients – and they tend to really like and respect it. Most people think that service providers only need to take care of their clients, but I have received many compliments over the years for how well I take care of my teams, and how well the teams tend to perform because of this. So, once again, take very good care of your team.

  1. All-or-nothing type leadership

A common security leadership mistake is the ‘you are in or out’, ‘my way or the highway’ style of management. On the face of it, this might look like a solid, no-nonsense type of leadership, but I beg to differ. While there are situations where things simply must be done a certain way, if you are in it for the long haul, this type of leadership is not really sustainable – or good. All or nothing is just too simple – too simplistic actually – and leaders who try to tell you that this is just their style, that they do not babysit or hold hands, are actually telling you that they do not really know how to properly lead. Anyone can set rules and then kick out subordinates who deviate – a machine could do that. Leadership is about motivating people and getting them to willingly sign on to the mission. No, it is not always simple, and no, it is not hand-holding either; it is just good leadership.

  1. How to handle weak team members

Almost any security leader has to face the fact that you are not always going to have an A-Team under you, and that you cannot always just get rid of weaker team members. From my experience, the best way to handle underperforming security operators is to pull them aside, tell them how important they are to the mission and how you personally need them to deploy the top-notch skill set you know they have. Is there a bit of mental Jiu-Jitsu going on here? You bet. It does not matter if you do not necessarily feel the operator has a good skill set; this kind of encouragement tends to put some wind behind people’s sails. They might still be weak, but at least they will try harder and make it easier for you to accomplish the mission.

Now, does this type of motivation always work? Of course not. And there might eventually be a need to take stricter measures with a weaker team member, but reserve those unfortunate options for later after you have tried the positive approach. Remember, leadership is mostly about guiding and motivating, not reprimanding and firing.

One common mistake you will want to avoid is sending weak or untrustworthy team members out of sight to man some quiet back entrance. It is probably a good idea to give them a less critical job, but keep in mind that the seemingly appealing idea of posting them out of sight might do more harm than good. You usually need solid operators for the slow, boring corners where operators are not closely observed and managed. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. If you are stuck with an untrustworthy operator, post them where you can keep an eye on them.

  1. Leading up the chain

I have talked about leading down the chain of command – motivating your subordinates – but you should also try to lead up the chain of command, all the way up to the clients who hired you. You obviously have to be very tactful here, but it is very important to instil calm, control and a feeling of security in your client. After all, that is what the client hired you for. Many people tend to forget that at its core, under all the layers of physical operations, systems and protocols, security is a feeling we are hired to provide – not for us, for our clients. And good security leaders know how to instil this feeling in their clients.

  1. Self-control

Simply put, if you cannot control yourself, how will you control or lead others? Think of it from their perspective – why would a subordinate want to follow someone who cannot control themselves? It is not that they cannot follow you, it is that they probably will not want to – and getting people to want to follow you is what leadership is about.

The biggest problem in maintaining self-control is that you often do not realise when and how you tend to lose it. The key to fixing this is to develop good self-awareness and empathy. Try to look at yourself from the outside. How do you appear to others? How are you coming across? How is your tone of voice affecting the people you are addressing? How would you be affected by it if you were being addressed in that manner? Try to notice how fast and loud you are talking. Try to notice what expression you have on your face. The key to self-control is self-awareness.

  1. Calm down. Slow down

Now that you have the self-control thing going, use it to calm down and slow down. Many people tend to forget how important this is, especially during stressful crunch times. A calmer disposition has two important functions. First, it will help you make better decisions. It is like being a quarterback – even when everything is erupting around you and you are about to get tackled, calm down, look around and make a decision. The second function has to do with the above-mentioned self-reflection thing. Regardless of whether you personally can handle a frenzied pace of running and yelling orders, how do you think you come across to your subordinates and clients when you do this? You want to set a good example, lead from the front and create a good tempo, but the line between that and coming across as confused and frantic is quite thin and easily crossed. It is usually more important for a leader to instil calm and control, and it starts with calming and controlling yourself first.

Slow down. Take a few deep breaths. Do you need to go to the bathroom? When was the last time you had a drink of water or grabbed something to eat? Run your index finger over that little area between your eyebrows. Is it creased up in a frown? Calm down. Slow down. Look around and make better decisions.

  1. Know thyself!

Leadership is all about people and understanding people starts with understanding yourself. Beyond understanding how leadership works in principle, if you want to learn how you can be a good leader, you will have to figure out what kind of leader you are. Leadership comes in many forms and from many types of people. Try not to emulate too closely leaders who are very different from you. You will probably just have a bad time struggling with it and then come across as phony. Know who you are and be you.

Some people have a permanent leadership disposition that comes across both on and off the job, while others have to switch it on when the need arises. Some leaders are older and more distinguished, while others are younger and more energetic. Some lead with lots of gusto, while others have more of a quiet intensity to them. Whatever the case may be, know who you are and figure out your personal style of leadership.

Ami Toben
Ami Toben is Director of Consulting and Training at HighCom Security Services based in San Francisco, USA. A former Tank Commander in the Israeli Defence Force, Ami also specialises and lectures in the areas of terrorist activity prevention; surveillance detection; 
penetration testing 
and event & facility security management.