On Leadership: The Importance of Vision

By Thomas J. Karabanoff
Stock image of a highlighter marking the definition of "vision."

Law enforcement leaders often can stay so focused on their departments’ mission of crime prevention and desire for a high-profile case that they fail to ask themselves, "Where are we going as a team and as an organization?" The emphasis of where they want their agencies to be in five or 10 years and the legacy they and their personnel will leave behind cannot be overstated. Ideally, it should be their goal to create a well-trained and better-equipped cadre of officers to run the business of enforcing the law and be outstanding public servants. 

Leaders often are visionaries by virtue of their ability to plan ahead, focus on what is important, and make things better in small, progressive steps. This can involve risk taking, leadership agility, strategic management, and thinking “outside the box.” However, these concepts cannot substitute for the importance of a leader to have a clear vision and a plan to execute it.

Several years ago I transferred to Texas to take command of my second office as a field supervisor. Within our regional management team, we had four field supervisors, a new special agent in charge (SAC), and an assistant SAC. The SAC and I were field agents together on the Texas border years earlier, so we knew well the issues facing our region. From the start the SAC had a clear plan and challenged us to take our region to the next level and make it one of the best—if not the best. His vision proved vital in keeping us focused on emphasizing issues of major concern for the field and implementing strategic and workforce planning projects that gave us the ability to function as one region.

The synergy and efficiency of the team under our SAC’s guidance was integral in minimizing the administrative burdens on our office’s field investigators and inspectors, allowing them to better focus on our mission. Through his vision and strategic planning, a number of field positions were upgraded to meet increases in complex casework, productivity, training, and dual-program oversight. Other inspection positions also were filled, with roles being adjusted or moved to meet the needs of the field, our mission, and administrative requirements. Most important, our SAC made the hard decisions to cut positions, minimize space needs, and limit some programs. Though decisions, such as these, are the most difficult, they truly define leading, staying the course, and doing what is best for the organization. 

Supervisory Special Agent Karabanoff heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in Fort Worth, Texas.
Supervisory Special Agent Karabanoff heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in Fort Worth, Texas.

My years in law enforcement have taught me to define “visionary” as the uncanny ability of leaders to sift through the junk, recycle what they can, discard what does not work, improve upon what is working, and focus as a team on constant forward momentum for the benefit of the mission, the organization, and the public. In the Southwest this type of visionary leadership is called “true grit.” Those leaders who possess the gift of foresight and the initiative to achieve what was thought impossible set an excellent precedent for fellow officers. Serving with one such leader has been an exciting, intense, and arduous journey, and the benefits gained through leadership experience, enhanced teamwork, and increased morale have made it worth all the effort.