Chief Dave Spiller wears all the trappings of the stereotypical police chief: There are four stars on each collar and four bars on the left sleeve of his crisp, navy-blue uniform, and a handgun is holstered on his hip. But he’s bringing a whole new brand of leadership to the Pleasanton Police Department, thanks in large part to a program at Saint Mary’s College.
And he’s not alone. In 10 years the Master of Arts in Leadership program has trained nearly 100 police or probation officers among its 340 graduates. They have learned a style of leadership that emphasizes influence and collaboration.
Chief Dave Spiller '04, Pleasanton Police Department
It’s a far cry from the traditional law enforcement model — a top-down, very regimented command-and-control approach. “That’s great in a crisis, but as standard operating procedure it doesn’t serve the well-being of the organization or the community,” said Ken Otter, director of Leadership Programs at Saint Mary’s. “Nobody wants to be dictated to on a daily basis.”
Students in the 19-month Saint Mary’s program move in cohorts through 11 courses, from values development and cross-cultural studies to organizational change and the future of leadership, employing both online learning and in-person weekend meetings. “The cohort model creates a learning community that models how people should relate in their everyday work,” said Otter. “They learn from each other.”
"I can be the guy with four stars on my collar but it’s really the credibility and trust I’ve developed over the years that matters. What I’m trying to instill in this department is that we all have the capacity to be leaders."
Among the lessons they learn: nonviolent communication; techniques for building problem-solving teams; how to work your sphere of influence; and ways to bridge differences. But the central lesson is to replace the concept of “authority” with the idea of “leadership.” Along the way, most graduates come to embrace this new leadership style, and some gain something more — a new outlook on life.
Chief Dave Spiller ’04, Pleasanton Police Department
Just in case anyone wonders what Chief Dave Spiller stands for, a large plaque in his office spells out “Chief Spiller’s Vision for the Pleasanton Police Department.” Many of the tenets are inspired by the lessons he learned in the Saint Mary’s program. They include working together with “a greater level of connectedness,” “remaining prideful but not arrogant,” and “recognizing that our authority comes from the public we serve.” this new language of leadership. One of his captains was so impressed by Spiller’s performance that he signed up for the Saint Mary’s leadership program and is now a graduate. Two other officers are currently enrolled in the program. That pattern has played out in police departments throughout the Bay Area. The program has now trained more than five officers in both the San Francisco and San Jose police departments and seven in Pittsburg. “It’s having a ripple effect,” Otter said, particularly since many graduates, both in the Bay Area and beyond, step into high-ranking leadership positions.
For Spiller, policing is a true calling. He started thinking about becoming a police officer after a childhood friend, Mark Stall, was kidnapped from home at gunpoint. He managed to escape, but the experience pushed both young men toward law enforcement. The two remained close friends through the years. Then, around the time that Stiller joined the Pleasanton force in 2002, Stall decided he wanted to live “somewhere safer” and moved to Boise, Idaho. A few years later, he was shot and killed in a routine traffic stop.
“I carry that with me,” Stiller said with emotion. “He never had the opportunity to be a chief. I’ve been blessed in my career. I celebrate my successes in his memory.”
Since he took over as chief of police in Pleasanton, Spiller has instituted regular meetings called “The Leadership Track” to share his philosophy with officers from the ranks. And he makes a point of being open to new ideas. “Before, ideas would move up the ranks and get killed at the lieutenant level because people would say, ‘The top brass will never accept that.’ It stifled the potential for innovation. Now, everything makes it here,” he said.
Although Spiller is a convert to the more collaborative style, he is quick to point out that, as a peace officer, you need to know when to practice this brand of leadership.
“When you’re dealing with budgets and personnel issues, that’s a great opportunity to practice the 21st-century leadership model of collaboration,” he said. “When you’re setting up a command post on the hood of a car and coming up with an attack plan for a hostage situation, you fall back on hierarchical structures.”
The key — and the big challenge for law enforcement officers — is to know when to shut off the “emergency” mode and return to a more humane management style.
“I can be the guy with four stars on my collar but it’s really the credibility and trust I’ve developed over the years that matters,” he said. “What I’m trying to instill in this department is that we all have the capacity to be leaders.”
Sergeant Janna Munk ’09, San Jose Police Department
After graduating from college with a degree in economics, Janna Munk drifted through a number of jobs but never felt really fulfilled, so she sat down and took stock of what she truly loved in life: being outside, working independently, and doing something for a cause, not just for money. Plus two more things — “adrenaline and drama.”
"My character has changed. When I enrolled in the leadership program, I wanted to get promoted. Now, I want to be fulfilled in my work. I feel really successful."
Not surprisingly, she decided to go into law enforcement. This July, she’ll celebrate two decades with the San Jose Police Department. Over the years, she has served in the violent crime and gang units, field training, community policing, and as a pilot in the helicopter unit. She’s even been called on to pose as a “prostitute for a day” to help with stings.
“I tried really hard to be the stereotypical police person,” she said. But over time she realized that although she loved her work, she didn’t quite fit the tough-as-nails mold. “In the Saint Mary’s program,” she said, “I learned to embrace my uniqueness and be more comfortable with it.”
She was promoted to sergeant halfway through the leadership program, and not long ago she took over the Court Liaison Department. It wasn’t an easy management task. Among her staff are both civilians and police officers, including a fair number in “special circumstances,” such as cops recovering from injuries, dealing with disciplinary problems, or counting the days to retirement. To top it all off, morale was poor because of severe budget cutbacks that reduced staffing levels.
“Without Saint Mary’s, I would have drowned,” she said with a laugh. But a year and a half later, the office has become “a really positive unit,” and officers who struggled elsewhere have thrived.
“I’m warm and embracing, but I hold them accountable. People feel entrusted and they produce in a whole new way,” she said. Even one policeman on the verge of retirement who came to the department with the nickname “Officer Grumpy” has warmed to her. “If you have a good boss, you can do good work,” he said as he joked with her in the office.
These days, she passes along what she learned at Saint Mary’s by teaching at the San Jose Leadership Academy, a program for high school juniors. She also credits the program for giving her more than new leadership skills.
“My character has changed,” she said. “When I enrolled in the leadership program, I wanted to get promoted. Now, I want to be fulfilled in my work. I feel really successful.”
LaDonna Harris ’05, Acting Alameda County Chief Probation Officer
When LaDonna Harris retired in 2010 after more than 30 years of service with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, she thought she’d have time to relax. But in March, the county reached out to her to take over as interim chief probation officer when the head of the department stepped aside amid allegations of sexual harassment.
"I’m more willing to acknowledge the value of the heart in the workplace. We have to put the heart and soul back into the workplace."
It’s a huge responsibility. The office supervises 18,000 probationers, and she oversees 700 employees and a $90 million budget. But she comes to the job with serious credentials. She was the first female commander of the Sheriff’s Department and the first African American female to be named a division commander.
Although she had served in many positions of responsibility before coming to SMC, she said “I wouldn’t have had the view of leadership I have if it weren’t for Saint Mary’s.” The most important lesson for her was that “leadership is a relationship of influence,” not authority.
“I can say, ‘This is how it’s going to be’ and it will be — as long as I’m looking!” she joked. “So often we don’t get the best result because people are afraid. We have to make room for failure. It has to be a safe place.”
Harris’ mantra is “holding people accountable and supporting them,” and she extends that philosophy to the parolees her department supervises. She has supported a number of innovative programs aimed at cutting Alameda County’s recidivism rate, which stands at about 52 percent, slightly lower than the state average of 58 percent.
Among them is MOMS (Maximizing Opportunities for Mothers to Succeed), which she co-founded. Along with several others from the SMC leadership program, she teaches communications and leadership skills to mothers and pregnant inmates who are serving time in Santa Rita Jail or have recently been released. Harris said she learned more than leadership skills at Saint Mary’s; she also learned an important personal lesson.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer about six months into the M.A. program. The chemotherapy took its toll and she considered dropping out. But her cohort said, “You can’t quit. We’ll help you.” At the graduation ceremony, they all wore pink ribbons to support her fight against breast cancer. “I never felt so loved in my whole life,” she said.
The experience changed her. “I used to think I had to be able to endure all things,” she said. “In seven months of cancer treatment, I missed a total of 45 days.” Now, free of cancer and in her new position at the probation office, she no longer feels she has to be a tough cop all the time.
“I’m more willing to acknowledge the value of the heart in the workplace,” she said. “We have to put the heart and soul back into the workplace.”