Leading Wisely

Listen to Ricardo Semler's Podcast

Erwin Van Waeleghem

Erwin van Waeleghem is the police commissioner for the city of Leuven in Belgium. He is a ‘Tealspirator’, international Teal for Teal-steward and instigator of several initiatives towards more people centric and essential values based Leadership. Erwin believes that empowering police departments through democratic management makes them more ready to combat the challenges they face today, including decentralized terrorism.


Ricardo Semler (RS):

Can you talk a little bit about the size of the police forces in Leuven?


Erin Van Waeleghem (EVW):

In our country, there's currently 189 local police forces. In 2000, we started reorganization with 196, but we originally came from 548 local police forces. We have one federal police force which is there to support the local police forces and it also has the airport police and special branches of detectives. In Leuven, we have 400 people and I think the biggest local police force is in Antwerp where they have 3,000.


RS:

When things start to get tough - when you start having situations in which someone is almost locking down the country - do you find that people are less likely to follow your ideas related to democratic management?


EVW:

Well, of course, they don't have time to listen to the principles. But, one of the principles is that people communicate on a very low level. They can communicate very directly instead of having to go the hierarchical way. That's actually what helps because people inside these terror sections can talk to each other from country to country without having to go through the hierarchy. That’s much more efficient. That’s what I tell people, “You don’t have to listen to my theories because now you can actually do it.” That's how people pick it up. That efficiency from our side is also why a number of forthcoming terrorist actions were stopped before the could could happen.


RS:

How do you convince people to give up some of this hierarchy and ego which they took so long to acquire?


EVW:

If you look at our core business, which is to serve the public and society, we are already working for people and with people. It's kind of a big paradox that we are so hierarchical and, on the other hand, we have people going outside in a car and doing their whatever they need to do to help people or to arrest people. That's the other side of our job. So, to me, it's sort of a paradox that we don't actually need.

We work in units of no more than 12 to 20 people at one time. Why should we have a commissioner and a head inspector who tell others how they need to do their job? That is totally crazy because we already train people to do their job and then we've got tell them how to. So, it doesn't work that way anymore. Actually, I don’t really convince people of these ideas - I plant seeds and they pick it up themselves. I’ll ask my officers, “When you were just junior officers, how did you like being bossed around?” Then I ask them, “So, why should you now use the same methods?” It doesn't work anymore especially with our Millennials.


RS:

Can you give me an example of a success story in the Leuven Police that shows how you’ve been able to find different communication channels and different ways of organizing?


EVW:

I think you understand that in a hierarchical institution like ours, distrust is the basis. That’s why they think they need layers of supervision. When I arrived here in January of 2013, I sat down with every person on this team separately and I started saying, “Look, I don't know you. You will receive 200% trust from me.” And they would tilt their head back and give me a look of distrust. I would look at them and say, “You are receiving 200% because I don't know you and you don't want me. What reason do I have to distrust you?” It's a different mindset. In a very short period of time I saw my officers carry this out towards other units because I gave them the leeway to communicate with others without consulting me. So, if they need to talk to a colleague, they just pick up the phone and talk to another colleague. In the old days, this would have had to have gone through me and then I had to talk to the other unit head.

This is actually where we start bumping into obstacles in adoption. Other unit heads will say to me, “No, your people still have to go through me. I need to coordinate everything.” Luckily, I have my Chief backing me up who says that this more open approach is the only way forward. About two weeks ago, he told be that he believed that self-organizing should be implemented for 90% of the daily tasks that we do and that he will be filing a report that outlines that idea. At first he was skeptical, but now he understands what it’s about. It’s a major step because that will have an impact on the other forces that we interact with and can really move things forward.


RS:

What sort of ideas will he put into his report?


EVW:

He’ll probably talk about the concept of self-managing and how we’ve implemented it. In my job, I see myself as just a facilitator. I don't do meetings anymore unless I’m needed. I carry my team instead of controlling them and that's what he really wanted to emphasize to other union heads. They need to change their role from one of supervision to one of support - where you actually stand underneath people.


RS:

How has the daily work changed with this new approach?


EVW:

Everybody actually knows what his job is. In the beginning we had a briefing every day, but now it’s just once or twice a week - and that’s just to see if everything is being covered if somebody has fallen sick or is on holiday or whatever. But, they take this on themselves - extra to their own jobs. They do this because they understand their larger role. This happens without a lot of extra work. They communicate to understand who is busy and who has some extra time at the moment and it’s just a very natural way of doing things. It’s amazing to me because we have this idea that people need to be lead. But the truth is that they’ll lead themselves if you give them the responsibility.


RS:

Can you relate how you branched out from this to the Teal-for-Teal movement?


EVW:

As you probably read I started out doing presentations based on your work, but I was always looking for more regional examples - particularly in Holland. We have the Ministry of Social Security here in Belgium and that was a major example. But, then Frederic Laloux came around and started talking about Teal organizations. That provides us an easier way to talk about being more humane, more trustful, more respectful, and about having individuals take more responsibility. Now, rather than having to talk through all of these ideas, I can just use the color because everybody knows what it’s about.

After reading Frederic’s book, I met a lady online who set up this community that was initially meant to have meetings with consultants, trainers, and business coaches to talk about these issue that Frederic Laloux put forward. I actually had a similar idea, but I wanted to make a company out of it because I thought, “Well, hang on a minute. There's a lot of people working on an island and they're not connected. They don't know about Tael yet, but what if we connect everybody and make them stronger?” So, we sat down and then I told her that I could help grow this internationally. We started in Belgium, but it grew very fast because people were already looking for this type of community. You see other communities popping up all over the world and I’m looking forward to helping this idea grow. We’re all talking about the same thing which is to make things work better for people.

Subscribe to our newsletter for bi-weekly inspiration & the latest news on the future of work.

Get inspired