History in the Community
Flores: Help us get to know you. Where did you grow up? Where did you study? What is your background?
Thomas: I'm a product of this community. I grew up in south LA and I like to say I was a benefactor of being a part of the [USC] community because this was home for me.
I grew up in a large, single family household and I was raised by my mom. We were poor and it was a struggle for a mom to take care of six kids alone, but she did an outstanding job and kept us out of trouble. Despite her own humble beginnings as a sharecropper’s daughter in Mississippi, she did a phenomenal job considering the obstacles she had. I say that because it's a part of who I am as a person.
I went to Crenshaw High School, which is not far from the university. After that, I went to UCLA where I studied political science before I went into the Los Angeles Police Academy. I served on the Los Angeles Police Department for about 21 years and had a phenomenal career. I then made a conscious decision to do something different. Thus, I went into campus police.
My first campus policing assignment was not here in the state of California, or at USC, it was at the University of District of Columbia in Washington, D.C. I was there for about a year and then had to come back home to tend to some medical concerns for my mom. I was hired here as a captain in 2006 and appointed to Departments Chief in January of 2013.
Chief John Thomas' Leadership Interview
Flores: What event, moment, or person influenced your leadership development?
Thomas: The biggest influence was my mom because she instilled in me the value and importance of education and hard work.
I also had the great fortune of knowing one of the foremost leaders in sports and leadership, John Wooden. I was greatly influenced by the relationship that I developed with John personally and from a leadership perspective.
Then I would say in the LAPD working directly for Chief Bill Bratton. I learned a lot about leadership, the importance of building relationships and organizational capacity. I didn't know it at the time, but he had a profound impact on how I lead.
Meaning in Leadership
Flores: What is the most fulfilling part about developing your leadership skills?
Thomas: The most important part about developing my leadership has been that it is a conscientious pursuit. It's something that I have to be mindful of. It's not something that I can take for granted. Just because I'm in this position, I am still going to learn things and become better at it.
It's a conscious and mindful decision. Every experience I can learn and gain from it. Throughout my leadership experience in every decision, there's time to debrief and practice self-reflection. I try to be mindful of what could have been done to improve. It allows me to look at leadership differently. It allows me to think of leadership as more of a process as opposed to a position.
"People in the workplace are hungry for inspirational leadership. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves."
Flores: What is fun about being a leader?
Thomas: The most fun part of being a leader is watching other people evolve and step into their leadership capabilities. Seeing people that work for me develop and become hungry and invigorated by assuming more responsibility.
Being chief, I look throughout the department and scan the horizon for pockets of growth and leadership. I see people develop and evolve into their leadership potential and see people apply for an Executive Master of Leadership or another leadership program as a result.
Establishing those things are important. We are a department that not only believes in leadership, but we also believe in producing leaders.
Flores: What leadership quote do you remain mindful of throughout your daily leadership duties?
Thomas: I go back to one of my favorite quotes from John Wooden. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” By virtue of not doing anything that's an active process. You're setting yourself up for failure. This [preparation] is a process; a fluid and organic process.
Leadership is anticipation and preparation. Being a visionary in the scope and perspective, and anticipating not only what could happen, but also where you're going and where you're taking the organization; staying strategic and focused on the vision and not getting lost in the day.
That quote always helps me understand that for the vision to become fully realized I have to be prepared. People in an organization have to be prepared, and preparation is not only from the day to day stuff but also staying focused strategically on where we're going.
Flores: What is the most important executive leadership skill for you?
Thomas: The most important leadership skill for me is listening. It is a constant process because often you get so much information coming your way. There is so much to do that you have to make a conscious effort to listen.
What I do is periodically I make it a priority to just sit in a room with personnel and listen. I don't have an agenda. I don't have much that I want to say to them, but it’s an opportunity to listen to what's happening in their world, hear how my decisions are impacting them, and discover what I can do to make their jobs more efficient and make them more engaged in the workplace.
"The most important leadership skill is listening."
Safety Leadership Challenges
Flores: What are the most significant challenges facing leaders in law enforcement and public safety?
Thomas: It's a changing profession. There are so many pieces to this profession, but I think right now we have to find a way back to building relationships. We have to build bridges of understanding and trust, and we have to accept some hard truths about what the cultural heritage of law enforcement is and what that has meant to various groups.
For minorities and other groups, we have to own up to some very hard realities. It doesn't mean the same thing as it does to the majority. We have to build those relationships, and we have to be prepared to hold ourselves accountable and stop being defensive about what our history has been and what is represented in different communities. Bridging the gaps of distrust and all the negativity.
We may not want to accept those realities, but they are the reality for those people living in those communities, so it's difficult. That's an important one. Trust and legitimacy. It goes back to the relationship dynamic, but I think we need to be very strategic about building relationships based on mutual trust, respect, understanding, and acceptance. The reality is that law enforcement’s cultural heritage in many communities is not a very good one.
For more on law enforcement leadership, watch USC Price's interview with EML Alumna Jennifer Grasso, LAPD's first female member of SWAT.
"We have to build bridges of understanding and trust. We have to accept some hard truths about the cultural heritage of law enforcement and what that has meant to various groups."
Flores: Do you have a favorite leadership book? How has it inspired you?
Thomas: The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership is on my bookshelf. I would have never guessed that that would ultimately become my favorite book, but it just runs counter to most leadership books because it talks about taking a non-traditional approach to leadership.
Transforming the University of Southern California from what it once was to what it is today. The vision started there. So I would have to say the Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Dr. Stephen Sample. Then, of course, John Wooden's book is full of his wisdom.
Continued Leadership Development
Flores: Has the Executive Master of Leadership program impacted your personal life?
Thomas: Yes, it has. If you look at leadership as a fluid, boundary-less entity, and that's what EML allows me to see. Leadership is not a subject confined to the workplace, but myself as a person on the path of self-improvement.
It has helped me in my marriage and It's helped me in my relationships with family members. It's helped me in a lot of aspects because if nothing else, it taught me to be mindful and more in tune with my interactions with people. I didn't think that way before. I just flew by the seat of my pants, and I wasn't mindful of how I projected myself. What is my relationship in this sphere? It's been transformative to me in that way.
Flores: Is there a leadership quality that you believe every successful leader needs to possess?
Thomas: I don't want to sound trite, but it's true integrity. You have to be someone that people see as truthful and honest. Your integrity is enough for them to believe in you. Don't cut corners. The most important thing is integrity because that's what's going to shine.
I don't care whether you have adopted all of the leadership principles and you can cite them to perfection. The reality is if people don't see those [front-line leadership principles] in you, and you don't show that you believe those things, it won’t matter.
"You have to be someone that people see worthy of following."
Flores: What common leadership mistakes do leaders make?
Thomas: I would have to say it is not caring and not being genuine. I see it when leaders say that they care, but their actions don't purport that.
Where the rubber meets the road is not so much in the workplace, but the time you take to get to know your people as people. It’s hard. I have 300 people under me, but I take the time to acknowledge and speak to people.
Life and Leadership
Flores: Is there anything that you want to share that I haven't asked about, or is there anything that you want to talk about either personally or as it relates to leadership?
Thomas: I would say that people in the workplace are hungry for inspirational leadership.
There are many different perspectives and generations in the workplace. Things that motivate one generation don't motivate the other, but at the end of the day, they're all looking for leadership that's inspirational and leadership that makes them want to come to work. Leadership that makes them want to give 100%. That's what people gravitate toward whether it's the person at the top or somebody in the middle.
People are hungry for leadership, and they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to feel significant during their time in the workplace. This is part of being away from their family. Yes, they get a paycheck and they make a living, but the tradeoff is huge.
Nobody's going to, at the end of their life, look back positively on their leadership career unless there were truly inspirational leadership and a sense of purpose. People should say, “I spent my time at work making a difference.”
Flores: It reminds me of how lucky I was to have you as a classmate.
Thomas: I look at that class, and everybody there brought a unique perspective. I'll tell you this; I learned more from you [Simon Flores] and my classmates than anything I got out of a book. Just listening to what you and other classmates were going through and sharing how you got through a leadership issue made the program special.
If I had to say, the biggest take away from the EML program versus any other leadership program is the relationships, and what you will learn outside of the books and the assignments. You can't put a value on it.
Coming from a law enforcement background, I wanted to talk to people outside of law enforcement because I wanted to hear other perspectives. I think it's the people, perspectives, and the different realities that were huge for me.
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