When to Take Charge and When to Offer Assistance | Chief Jerry Stokes


Our special guest on this week’s episode of the Vibrant Leadership Podcast is Chief Jerry Stokes. He is the Chief of Police with the city of Salisbury, North Carolina and has been in public service for many years, formerly as Major with the city of Lynchburg, Virginia’s Police Department. 

Chief Jerry says, “I believe leadership is really kind of a mindset. You can use academic principles and definitions as a way to manage your leadership. But to be a true leader, you have to be an inspiration to people, an example and an inspiration to get them to do what they need to do and rise to their abilities and meet their true expectations and what they’re capable of doing. If you inspire and grow folks and they become good employees or good citizens themselves, that’s what makes you a leader.”

We chat about the importance of being physically present as a leader, as well as:

  • Formally recognizing outstanding work

  • Offering assistance rather than taking charge

  • Finding a hobby or an outlet of expression outside of the police force

  • Continuously learning and growing to apply new skills to your profession 

  • And more…

Mentioned in this episode:


Voiceover: You’re listening to the Vibrant Leadership Podcast with leadership speaker and consultant Nicole Greer.

Nicole Greer: Welcome to the Vibrant Leadership Podcast today. It is my absolute delight to bring to you one of the people I have worked alongside and see his leadership in action. It is Chief Jerry Stokes. He is the chief of police with the city of Salisbury. And he is an inspiration to me. And I’m delighted he’s on the show today. So, Chief Stokes, can I call you Jerry, for this little intimate conversation? Okay, well, how are you doing? How are things in Salisbury, North Carolina?

Chief Jerry Stokes: Yeah, we’re surviving COVID and trying to be as normal as possible. But yes, I’m probably better than I deserve. So yes.

Nicole: That’s great. That’s great. Well, you are one of these frontline folks that is taking care of business, despite all of our crazy COVID nonsense that’s going on. So I’ll just say for everybody who’s listening, we’re grateful, grateful, grateful. And you are one of the leaders that I work alongside. And I am absolutely delighted to ask you this question, because I’ve seen your leadership in action, but how would you define leadership?

Jerry: You know, I thought about this question in, you know, there are all those classical definitions that from those academic, I guess, definitions, and that, you know, situational, autocratic, democratic, laissez faire even in there. But those are, to me a little more management than maybe leadership styles. And so I believe leadership is really kind of mindset and principled methods of getting people kind of to do what, what you need them to do the right thing. You can use those academic, you know, definitions as a way to manage your leadership. But for to be a true leader, you have to be an inspiration to people, an example and inspiration to people and to get and get them to do what they need to do and rise to their abilities and meet their true expectations and what they’re capable of doing. If you inspire and grow folks, and they become good employees or good citizens, what have you, themselves. That’s what makes you a leader.

Nicole: Yeah, and I have seen you do this first thing. So So how do you inspire people? Like let’s just go a little deeper right there? How exactly do you inspire? Because here’s, here’s what you need to know about Jerry is that, you know, he’s not a flashy guy. He’s like, calm, cool, collected, he’s almost stealth. So how does a calm cool collected guy like yourself, inspire people?

Jerry: Well, it’s so I think being present a lot. And, you know, for in police leadership, so I’m administration, so there is that classic divide of, we’re out here doing the work. So, you know, I go to the, the scenes and, and the incidents and, you know, and kind of get my hands a little dirty. So, you know, I think that inspires folks as well to, to, well, you know, the Chiefs here and, you know, appreciate what we’re doing. And I think that to showing people that you appreciate what they do, even Hey, great job passing in the hallway, but also look for those opportunities to recognize people formally. You know, we have a, I guess, a policy or, or system systems in place to give officers ribbons to put on their uniform, which are very formal ways of, you know, saying they did a great job and that really inspires seeing, you know, my, my coworker got recognized for the great work that he or she did, and that’s gonna, you know, help me say, you know, what, I must step up too and, and try to do something to be recognized as well. I’m getting a lot of sun shining through.

Nicole: That’s okay. You look you look good right now. Okay, perfect. Yeah. So, you know, I think that’s great. You told me one time that very same thing, that you had something really big going on and you went out to the scene, but when you get out there, you don’t take over.

Jerry: Right yeah, so and I think that true inspires people. So I’m not what’s the phrase a not an expert at one thing but you know…hats…trades. Yeah, Jack of all Trades and Master of None. That’s it. That’s the phrase. Yeah, I know myself that, you know, when I get out there, that there are people that are much smarter than me than me and doing whatever happens to be going on be it, you know, this type of crime scene or this type of incident. So they’re much better at that. And, and, you know, those simple questions that will you need, how can I help rather than this is what you need to do is sometimes what you need to make sure that as a leader, you’re not, you know, override good sense and, and letting people do their job. I mean, they want to do their job, they know they can do it, they know they’re skilled at it, and for you to come in and say, oh, let’s do it different. And be and not be the expert, then then you’re not gonna inspire folks, and you’re not gonna lead well.

Nicole: Yeah, that’s great. Well, I don’t think that doing police work is any different than doing like, say working for a bank or something else, it seems like everybody’s job is getting more and more technical. Like, you got to know this little piece of software, or you got to know this little piece of, you know, doing police work, and, and so not not one human can learn all that. So, leaders are really having to rely on their frontline people to understand all the details and and to let them kind of lead themselves.

Jerry: Yeah, absolutely.

Nicole: Yeah, I think that’s important. So what are the most important skills that you know, like a chief of police needs to have, you know, I have the privilege of working inside of a little organization called Law Enforcement Management Academy, down in Monroe, North Carolina. And, you know, all the people that come to this want to be the chief someday, you know, these are the rising leaders. And so I’m planning on sharing this podcast with them. So, you know, what would you say was the secret to getting yourself into the chief seat?

Jerry: I think, you know, I’ve always been genuine person, very, you know, matter of fact, or frank and honest, and the honesty for our profession is absolutely the most important thing, never compromising, and never losing integrity, and being thoughtful about, you know, what you’re doing, and how this is going to affect people. Because we have, unfortunately, have can have our actions can have significant effect on people’s lives. 

So, you know, understanding that power and, and using it wisely, and particularly for leaders and supervisors and being out there and, you know, making sure that folks are doing the right thing, and for the right reason. And, you know, when you’re out there walking that walk and talking that talk and doing what you say is important, you know, I can talk about ethics and integrity all day long. And if I don’t demonstrate that, and even in my personal life, right, so, you know, as the chief, the newspaper would love to run a story about me getting drunk at a bar or whatever, well, you know, yes, absolutely. And that would damage my leadership significantly. If, if something like that were to happen. 

So I’ve got to walk that walk and walk that talk and say, you know, you’ve got to have integrity, you’ve got to be honest. And, you know, like I am, you know, in, you’re not necessarily saying like I am, but you know, you’re you’re demonstrating that. And remember, everybody started from the bottom. And that is absolutely something that you can’t forget, is where you came from. And that I think that probably, for me, I have always remembered those stumbles that I had when I was brand new and field training. 

And a long, long time ago, veteran officer and didn’t know anything, I was fresh out of the Academy, and everybody thought I was, you know, probably gonna last for two weeks, like they do just about every new officer around here. And that, you know, remembering that and that, you know, it’s, it’s okay, they’re going to make mistakes, and, and we don’t take it personal, we’re going to correct and, you know, sometimes people make significant mistakes, but most of the time is just, they didn’t know what to do so particularly when they’re young and you and not forgetting that, you know, when I was young, and you had people treated me in, you know, a disrespectful manner. 

I may not have hung around, but fortunately, you know, generally fairly respectful to me when I was younger and wanting to help me and coach me, and that’s, that’s what’s important, you know, I can have all sorts of leadership, knowledge and institutional knowledge, but if I’m not sharing that and, and helping people along the way then I’m not a successful leader. And another thing is don’t take it personal, right? People gonna criticize you. And and I’ve, you know, particularly as the chief and the nowadays, people are very critical. But you know, I can’t take that personal and, and my folks might be critical of things I do or say, and I can’t take that personal. 

And but, you know, maybe those are learning opportunities for me to maybe well had the department done X, Y, or Z or use achieved on X, Y, or Z, well, I can dig my heels in and be mad about that. Or I’d say, okay, well, probably could have done that better. And then for the next time, look at that, and got to make sure you care for you people care about and care for your people. I worked for a chief one time who publicly made the statement of they don’t like it, they can be successful somewhere else. Oh, yeah. And ran out the door. And that you, you have to act like you care about people, and what they think and what they feel, and even if it has some doesn’t have some validity to it. 

You know, that’s where people are in, kind of understand that. And, and then of course, you got to help them understand why you know why things are different than you’re seeing it. But really, you know, caring about people. And even when they’re testing your patience, you know, that that 10% of those folks who were 90% of your problems and not being mad, and still asking how your kids are, that sort of thing that’s important, you know, this isn’t personal to us. And, again, meeting your folks where they are. Got to adapt to them. Can’t can’t, you know, you certainly need to set a vision and a tone for your organization. But you also got to understand where your folks are, and be there too to help bring them along to your vision.

Nicole: Yeah, I love what you’re talking about. So you talked about a lot you talked about, first of all integrity, which, to me, is this developing people’s character? And we’ve done a lot of work at the city of Salisbury with with the police, talking about you know, what quality is? Or what character traits do you have naturally do you overuse them. And then on the opposite side of the scale, where the character traits you’re not using at all, but if you just apply those, we did the tilt together. So I love what you’re talking about. And it’s no mistake is no mistake, it’s not something we’re kind of going to avoid. 

But we know that the police are under a lot of scrutiny right now. And one of the things that I think you do for your team is like, despite all the things that are going on, you bring them training, you bring them coaching, you bring them this the steady, dare I say loving attention, you know, and I think that I think that your team really, really, really respects you for that. So I think that’s awesome. So so the flip side is, is where do where do people get themselves in trouble? Like, if you look at all the young officers, and maybe some of the older officers that you’ve you work with. What are the little traps they get into? are places they get into that makes them less successful? Or makes people struggle? What do you think, what do you think police officers get themselves into?

Jerry: Well, thank you. Certainly the the integrity issue, which is fortunately a very small portion of people in this profession, we do a really good job of vetting folks to get in. And it takes dozens of folks to get one person in because as behaviors predict future behaviors, so if you can’t, can’t, we can’t give you this awesome power that you’re going to have as a police officer without having a good background of being able to make good decisions. So right. And I think that’s where, you know, those few that kind of bet rotten apple and the whole barrel sort of thing. 

So we also need to make sure that we’re holding, not wanting to be held accountable. That’s, you know, even holding a willingness to hold my coworkers accountable as well. So if we, we talked to folks that are, you know, witness a crime, you see something you better say something, because we can’t solve a crime. Well, you know, this is a profession. And if you see something going on, if you don’t say something, it’s hard for me as the chief to ensure ethics at three o’clock in the morning because I’m usually asleep at that time. So you’re, you’re out there with your co workers, and if somebody is doing something wrong, I get the understand or the kind of perspective of, you know, we’re out here covering each other’s back. But we also can’t have folks in this profession that aren’t upholding that integrity. 

So that’s where, you know, the the new cops kind of lose some end up outside of the profession, is when they lose it, you know, and we know, lots of things about lots of people, and have the ability to find out lots of things about lots of people, just because of the data systems and understanding that the, you know, you are responsible for only using that for the right purpose, and not being able to talk about it with your neighbors and those sorts of things. Unfortunately, those are kind of the areas where we get into trouble is when we, when we want to, you know, check out the pretty girl that went by and see what her name is, and, you know, that sort of thing. So yeah, though, that that has happened. I’ve seen that happen. So yeah.

Nicole: And now we know where she lives where she works, yeah.

Jerry: It’s completely inappropriate, you know, to do stuff like that. So, but in and otherwise. You know, it’s, it’s a tring profession. It will it draw you in and make you a very negative person if you liked it. And that’s probably for, you know, more than the integrity issues is living.

Nicole: I agree. That cynical thing turns on or something. Right.

Jerry: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And, and being able to combat that. I mean, I’ve frankly, I’ve struggled with that my life is that being cynical, and you know, these people aren’t worth anything, because, you know, next week, they’re going to be doing the same thing. Well, you know, that’s not not kind of how you need to approach this. And if you let that overtake your thinking, you’re not going to be successful at this, and you’re not going to get not going to do what you’re supposed to do.

Nicole: That’s right, that’s right. So it’s that balance between caring about humanity. But being bold enough to take action and make sure everybody is safe. You know, you have to have the courage to go out and be a police officer. But at the same time, the people that are out there, you got to have got to care for the humanity that’s involved, right. It’s that balance for back to that tilt model again. So that’s, that’s really, really great. Well, I want to ask you a question. I’m going to surprise you with a question. So to get ready. Now, one thing I know about you is like you’re personally disciplined, like, Jerry, the, the non chief is a discipline guy, that’s what I witness. And you know, one of the things in my coaching methodology is we look at habits. So my coaching methodology is shine SHINE, and the H is habits. So, you know, talk a little bit about, you know, how does a police officer as a leader, how does a chief keep himself healthy? What habits do you have in place that keep you so that you can be this man of integrity?

Jerry: Well, you know, there, there’s the physical health side, and, you know, making sure you’re exercising and and eating right, we notoriously in police work, eat horribly. You know, I started off with a 29 inch waist when I came into the profession, I haven’t seen that for a very long time. You know, and of course, that physical health translates into some mental health as well. The other part of that is you really really got to have outlets that you enjoy that are not necessarily police related. So not that there’s anything wrong with like, target practice shooting, but that that’s you know, kind of police thing, right, you’re carrying a gun all the time. If you if you enjoy that but find something else. 

And look for something way outside and art is way outside the box, but maybe there’s something you can do kind of that is completely flipside of this rough, tough exterior, police officer thing to escape from all that. And then make sure that you have outlets and friends who are not in the profession. You kind of got to get away from it on occasion. And I’ve told this to recruits in the past, you know, they were coming out of the Academy. Don’t you know we are very, very much you keep our friends close, who are usually cops. And my wife’s not a police officer and making sure that you know, we have friends who are well outside of the profession. And even if it’s going to be a church, or what have you that you’re really engaged in that and, and something to kind of keep you focused on the good side of humanity, because we see lots of negatives and when we do see lots of good as well, but it’s, it’s a lot of negative you get to see. So getting a break from that, and, and, you know, to see something completely different.

Nicole: Right. And and we were talking before we started the podcast about the fact that you’re a runner, and you’ve got he so he’s so humble. But you all need to know like back there on his wall there in his office somewhere. There’s this big thing of like, you know, different metals from different runs he’s been in and that kind of thing. Well, what is the hobby that you do that is left field? Would you share? Dare I ask?

Jerry: Right, so I do a little painting of sorts. So yeah.

Nicole: Really! I did not know this, I learned something new every time I talk to you. What kind of painting?

Jerry: It’s with airbrush and stuff like that.

Nicole: Oh, that is so cool. All right. Awesome. Awesome. That’s fantastic. Okay, so let’s say you are mentoring a very special listener. You know, there was somebody on here who was thinking about becoming a police officer or getting into public service, what piece of advice would you give to them?

Jerry: Never ever stop learning. Hmm, I even as a, you know, six months, out of the academy patrol officer, training opportunities will come up listening to a podcast, whatever, it doesn’t matter, but keep learning and keep to keep your skills sharp. And to kind of get that, you know, Master of None, but you know, familiarity with a lot of different stuff. You know, just kind of developing your, your, where you’re going to go as well. So if you go to these different trainings, and you listen to what people have to say, and, you know, I went to an auto theft school one time, and that was interesting. And then I went to a homicide detective school, and then that was pretty interesting. 

So right, I ended up being on a homicide squad, for part of my career, which was, you know, based on what I was exposed to, I use the auto theft of school several times during my career, you know, when I when I came across stuff, but again, just just never ever kind of getting stale and, and not wanting to go to training and not looking for something different in and then then you have been to before and leadership positions, you know, those first line supervisors and in on up in the middle management, you constantly got to be looking for those different types of leadership courses, all of them, you know, have their own little twist to it. 

And you can take a little bit out of each one of them, right, and because you’re going to develop your own leadership style, and it’s probably not going to be you know, I’m a laissaz faire leader or I’m an autocratic, you know, you’re not going to fit within a box, you’re going to have your own way of leading, you’re going to have your own way of habit, you know, those different little things that you do to be a successful leader. Hopefully not too many things that you do that make you unsuccessful, but right. And, of course, you know, if you go to different courses, you’re going to help you understand where those gaps are, that you’re not doing real well at, and kind of improving yourself. 

So it’s a constant improvement. And you’ve got to do that in this profession. Probably every profession, I don’t know, I’ve never really worked anywhere else, but every profession as far as you know, constantly improving and for supervisory skills that that’s super important. For always, you know, those intelligence, emotional intelligence kind of assessments, you know, the path elements and all those sorts of different little things. And I’ve done tons of them over my career, but each one of them told me a little bit about some little part of my personality that that, you know, helped me understand. probably be a better leader. Because again, you’re not going to fill a box.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. And I totally agree. I mean, it’s not like a one and done on these assessments. And like you said earlier, when you want to become a police officer, there’s this battery of assessments that they take in. And I’ve had the privilege of seeing some of this. And so you know, when you think about, you know, seeing your fellow police officer out on the streets, this person’s been seriously vetted, and it’s solid guy or gal that is absolutely for real. But I heard you say a couple things, you need to have a growth mindset, if you’re going to be a leader, right? So it’s just like, I’ve got something to learn, which is so funny, because I think a lot of times you get into a position and I love what you said earlier said, we’re going to give you this job with all this power. 

Wow, that is a that is a really cool way to look at it. You get you can get a little ego trip, cookin. Right. And and understanding that No, you’ve always got something to learn, and then doing these assessments and like holding it up like a mirror. Okay, is this true about me? You know, maybe not be 100%. But oh, that that little thing right there. That is absolutely true about me, and I should pay attention. So turning the mirror inward is what I like to call. So that’s self assessment. That’s the s in my coaching methodology, which is to look in the mirror and go, what’s it like to experience me What is my deal? You know, so I think that’s really, really important. Very, very valuable, what you shared. So I, you know, one other thing I want to say, because you want to Jerome horn, I know that, I know that when you came to the city of Salisbury and now that you have been there, you’ve had a real impact, like on the numbers. So it’s not just you know, inspire your people. 

But it’s like, you got to do business too. And one of the great things about you is I know you get business done, meaning lowering the right numbers, and you know, making the other numbers go up. So another question kind of off the board here, but what how did you do that? How did you come in and and figure out how to take the numbers the right direction? Because you absolutely did that.

Jerry: So we talked about that growth mindset. And I was fortunate to come from a department that sent me to lots of growth training. And one of them I went to at Boston University. And it was for three weeks, we sat up there and talked about focused deterrence and crime reduction strategies. But unfortunately, my department was kind of played at it, but they didn’t do it really well. So but I knew these concepts, right. So and they work, right, everybody says they work academically.

Nicole: Researched and all that.

Jerry: Yes. So when I got the chance to come here, it’s kind of like, okay, well, here’s your clean slate, you’ve got to make these sort of things happen. So that here’s our problems. And, and, you know, you talked about all these, these things, do it. So I, and then I had to know that, okay, I know these concepts, and I’ve tried to walk it, but I’m not, you know, an expert at this. So actually, I went out and got somebody that was an expert, right. And, you know, I probably could have metal through with this and made it okay. But you know, I happen to find somebody who really knew it well, and had done it. 

So that that’s another thing for a leader is again, understanding that, you know, I don’t know everything, and I know, you know, academically I know these things. And if I don’t know how to do them, I need to make sure that I go out and find somebody that can help me get there. So nobody around here in house knew that but you know, brought somebody in from the outside to help me. And, you know, I think that, you know, understanding this, this is a vision I have, and I’m, I’m kind of assessed what I needed to do, and where we were, and then okay, this is what I got to do to make us successful to get there and again, so it was bringing in these somebody who was very capable of doing that and had knew the concepts academically, but also had done them operationally. 

So, you know, put them in a significant leadership role and kind of support them and Yep, let’s, let’s run with this. And let’s do this and, you know, helping them do the things that I could do like the budget, what have you, those are all my responsibilities. And but you know, okay, we need money here. All right, let me figure out how I can help you push money over there in the budget and do things differently than we’re doing it and being you know, being willing to be creative about that. And so you know, we brought in all these concepts, and now we’re really headed in a good direction. You know, we were at a 20 year low. And we know it’s 20 year because we only go back at least. Yeah, I only have that much data. So it couldn’t be lower than that. As a matter of fact, somebody gave me a 1980s news article about the city, and we are, it’s way more than 20 years, crime reduction. 

And, you know, these things work. And we, we were able to get it down in a relatively short amount of time. And I think that was because the people that were here, knew they needed to do something different, right, they knew what they were doing, they didn’t have a good direction, they, they knew what they were doing wasn’t necessarily solving the problems. I mean, they were reacting to the problems. So everybody kind of embraced it and jumped on board. And I think that’s what helped us bring those numbers down in a relatively quick amount of time.

Nicole: Yeah. And, and so the concept that I would call, what you did is, I have a, I have a leader I work with over in Kentucky, and I think I’ve shared some stories, maybe with you about, about her, but she runs all these convenience stores. And so her business is a lot like your business, it’s all it’s open 24-7-365. It never goes to bed. And she said, you know, what you got to do is get put an ace in the right place. And so that’s kind of what I heard you say so and you know, and the thing is, again, I think, you know, leaders need to understand is surrounding yourself with really great people and giving them the tools.

Because you kind of alluded to the definition, we started at our blog, or our podcast, with the definition of leadership. And you know, yours was, you know, you know, to inspire people and to take care of them and care about them. You know, and now at the end your you went back to kind of an academic place, which is the Center for Creative Leadership over in Greensboro, North Carolina says you got to give people direction, you got to get them aligned, meaning resourced, which I heard you say when you talked about budget, and then you just got to get a commitment out of people. And it sounds like you did that you set a direction got alignment. Yep. All the stuff in the right place, the budget, the person, the people are ready to commit. And once you get those three things together, it’s like, it works.

Jerry: Yes. Yeah. Absolutely.

Nicole: Yeah. Oh, so I celebrate that I celebrate that. Okay. So tell me, tell me what you’re going to do with, with your career and with your leadership in the future. Tell me what the future holds for you.

Jerry: So I’ve been doing this a really long time. And, you know, it’s probably time to to not tomorrow, probably in the next couple of years I’ll look at a full retirement. So I’ve retired once from Virginia. And so yeah, I’ll probably end out my career here. It’s all very,

Nicole: Yeah, yeah. Well, I bet you’ll have something up your sleeve. If I know you something you’ll dip your toe into provide some great inspiration and care for people.

Jerry: I don’t know. If it involves a beach or something I might be ok.

Nicole: Ha! Is that where you want to go? You want to go to the beach? 

Jerry: Yeah, I think we’d like to go there.

Nicole: That sounds fantastic. That sounds fantastic. Well, I am so grateful that you have been on my podcast, the Vibrant Leadership Podcast. And we have learned a lot from you today. And so check out the show notes, where I’m gonna mention some of the key things that Jerry shared with us and also maybe a few tools for your toolbox, because he was talking about putting tools in your toolbox when he was talking about education, and learning. So I’m gonna put some tools as a download for you at the end of this podcast. So Jerry, thank you so much for being with us. We totally again, we’re very grateful for your your public service for all these many, many years. And thank you for being such a great leader.

Voiceover: Ready to up your leadership game? Bring Nicole to speak to your leadership team, conference or organization to help them with her unique shine method to increase clarity, accountability, energy and results. Email speaking@vibrantculture.com, and be sure to check out Nicole’s TEDx talk at vibrant coaching.com/TEDtalk.

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