Leadership: Operations Commander, COVID-19 Command, Queensland Police Service. PART 1

March 23, 2021

Episode 5 of What Leaders Know is  Part 1 of a two-part conversation with Assistant Commissioner, Queensland Police Service, Shane Chelepy.  Shane is Operations Commander of the COVID-19 Command with QPS.  In our two-part conversation, Shane takes us on his journey to becoming an accomplished and successful leader within the Queensland Police Service.

Episode 5 is Part 1 of this conversation. Shane talks about his early journey into the adventures of policing, quickly tempered by significant early learning experiences.  Shane discusses his exposure to the courageous leadership of some senior police who led the critical cultural change in the wake of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. He shares that this led him to focus on excelling as he grew a leadership career across a diverse range of the organisation’s operations and Commands.

Shane shares stories, insights and leadership takeaways gained across the roles that became the platform for his later promotions into the executive roles of Assistant Commissioner.  

And finally, in his wrap up of Part 1 of a two-part conversation, Shane speaks candidly about some of his failures, and what he learnt about leadership from these experiences. 

Across this Episode, Shane shares great takeaways from his own experiences that will resonate for those on their own journeys to leadership.

Leadership: Operations Commander, COVID19, QPS Part 1


In season two of  what leaders know, I ask each of my guests.

How has leadership  changed you given you have been on a journey of leadership for much of your  career, I'm interested in learning how leadership has changed you.


Thanks, Penny. Look,  I think leadership has been just like a lifelong journey for me. I think I'm  forever changing. I've become a lot more comfortable with my leadership role  over time.

I suppose one of the biggest things about leadership for me is  I've become a lot more comfortable in being able to manage my own self doubt  as well.
And it's in these periods of self doubt in your leadership role, I think some of my best work has been done.
I think leadership challenges  me in different ways, but it's definitely changed me. It's it's put a much  more focus on delivering with people and through people, rather than seeing  leadership as an individual role that you hold in an organization or a  function.


It's interesting  that over time people move from feeling that they are leading people. People  are following them to the fact that they're actually facilitating that  process, and they're on the journey with people.


Absolutely Penny,

I  think you've got to feel as a leader you got to feel comfortable in your role  as a leader. You got to understand what your role as a leader is around,  getting people to deliver it their highest potential for you.


So many young people  when they're in school, say they want to join the police service. What's your  earliest memory of wanting to join the service? And what was the appeal?


I was in the  construction industry before joining the police service. I know right  through school, I just wanted to do something different every day.

I was walking along  the beach at Currumbin and he said, Have you ever thought about joining the  police service? If you want to do something different every day and that was  it, that was that was what hooked me. The police. Very similar armed services.  You seem to be doing things for the community. My whole family has always  been community orientated. Um, so it was just a natural fit.


And when you say  your whole family was community oriented, can you expand on that?


From a farming community, a small town community. Mum and always was  involved in the community. Dad's would say, “You may be an individual,  but you're a member of a community,” and that's stuck with me really strongly.


What can you recall  to be your first insight into good leadership? And how did this influence you  in your early years in the service?


When you first joined the police service, I don't think you think about leadership. It's too exciting You've got to learn about these new things. You're helping  people every day, whether or not you're going to a crime that's been  committed.

I think the first  real insight to leadership to me came around the late eighties early  nineties, which was around the time of the Fitzgerald inquiry.
I joined the police service prior to the Fitzgerald inquiry.

It's a totally different organization to what it was back then.

But what I saw then  through really challenging times, that's a real challenge on the culture.
As a young officer you didn't see or or hear any of of what was  portrayed on TV, and it just wasn't the organization you joined.
But what we saw at  that point in time with some really good strong leaders, people like, you  know, Jim O. Sullivan. Ron Redmond, who stood up at a time that was a pivotal  point in our organization.
As a Senior Constable, Acting Sergeant at the time, and to see the strength and character of those people to lead our organization during a period where not everyone in the organization agreed to  where it was going. It was it was tremendous. That was my first insight. I'll  never forget that.


So when you look  back now as a very accomplished and successful leader. And you think of those  people in that time. Can you talk about one specific area where you observed  those key people really implementing that cultural change?


Definitely. Look, it  was about the same time this was occurring. I was only just starting my academic learnings and leadership at the same time as well. And back then it  was very much You're a style of leader.

What I actually saw at that time was a leadership group that realized if they didn't take the hearts and minds with them in the organization, they risk losing the organization.

And I remember as an  Acting Sergeant, sitting in a room of very senior people who in that time you really respected and didn't question their leadership in any way.

And I remember this group of senior police came out and spoke to us about what the future could look like.

And it was the first time I saw a senior leader stand up and say,  "I actually don't know what it looks like at the end, but we're on this  journey."
And there was a lot  of pushback in the room about, you know, you're tearing the culture of the  organization apart and very clearly, and I just can't remember the senior  officers name. But he stood there and said, “we've lost our way. The police  service has become about us, not about the community”.
And it was at that  point, I thought to myself, there's a real tackle of the culture. You've challenged every officer sitting in that room to say, "Stop thinking  about yourself, Think about why you joined".
But what I what I  saw at the same time was those senior leaders saying, this isn't going to be  for everybody, and it was that whole thing about, you know, you've got to  come on this culture journey, but if you don't fit in to the new way we're  going, we're going to respectfully recognize that you've had this long career  and we're going to help you transition somewhere else.


So is it fair to say  that that has informed some of your own leadership style.


Absolutely. That was  my first exposure.

You need to have an understanding of where you're  going, but you don't need to have all the answers.
And I think that to me was  absolute key. The other bit I thought about it was we were young Constables.  Yet these senior police had taken the time to come and engage with us and  talk to us about where they see the future of the police service going.
And I  thought that was critically important. Like you can't underestimate the change. We introduced academic studies. We introduced leadership studies. We  we totally revamped and made it the professional police service that it is today. From that, that's a rich beginning to a very long leadership career.


Now I want to talk about 2004 when you were appointed as a commissioned officer and you took up  the role of state water police coordinator until 2008.

Queensland's such a  massive state. What were the challenges of stepping into your first role with  statewide responsibilities?


Thanks, Penny. This  was this was a really interesting time for me. Up until this point in time, I've been a leader within a single geographic area.

So one of my strengths  always, talked about was my ability to get out and speak to everyone  every day.

This is the first time I've taken on leadership role across the  entire state. So the challenge of actually getting my message down from the  top to the lowest common denominator in the bottom when you spread across the  broad state of Queensland was really difficult.
At the same time, I was asked  to leader my first real large strategic piece of work about reshaping the  water place for the future.

And that included  the way we did our business, the type of vessels, the way we maintained our  vessels and really bringing a level of professionalism to it and modernizing  the water place.

What I found at this point in time, it was really  important to have that clear vision of what I wanted to achieve.

And this  was probably for me where storytelling came into leadership.
I didn't have  the answer, but I had respect. I've been in the water police seven or eight  years prior to this, so I spent a lot of time traveling the state and  selling a message - I wasn't necessarily selling the outcome.
It was selling  the message and being able to engage with people who have been in the water  police a long time.
But tell them the story about why we needed to change and  what the benefits would be at the other end and asking them effectively to  sign up to the vision that I put out there.

It was really interesting to  be able to then need to connect that back to where we were going and where  the service was going.

You know, up until that, the water police always seemed  to be this little was not that little quite large area, but sort of to the  side of the organization. And I quickly learned that the staff didn't quite  know where they fitted into the broader organization.

I was able to give them that level of comfort and that connection. Now that's not a do it once and forget about it. I can remember my wife regularly reminds me of the I would trip this state every second week. Every third week I've been another town sleeping on a  different boat or in a different hotel, and that was really important to is  about going out would arrive in town.


When a lay person  such as myself, thinks of policing, and particularly in the Queensland Police  Service, it's such a complex organization. Can you give an overview of water  police?


Definitely. Water  police hold a number of roles.

One of the key roles we hold and where it's  really valuable is we actually save lives.

The Queensland Police Service is responsible for search and rescue across this vast state. We have both on  water and land and the water police coordinate that. Now we take a  coordination role.

It's very technical role of working out the best search  areas to find people based on their movements. But on water, the water police  also take that role, but they also take a search role. They coordinate with our volunteer fire and rescue organizations and other organizations, both federal and state, to run search and rescue operations and actually recover people alive and and save lives. That's one of our key functions.


Your role shifted from state water police to Counterterrorism Strategic Policy Branch. I don't  know if people are generally aware of the breadth of exposure the police  service provides across a leadership career. I imagine it makes for an  interesting journey. How did you feel when you learned your new promotion  came with a pretty significant pivot? And how did you work through the  challenges of learning about counterterrorism responses within QPS while  building a new team in that initial period?


Thanks, Penny. This was a really interesting time for me.

This is a time where, as a leader, I said about the water police before having served in the water police, I  was always able to draw back on some technical knowledge that I held.  

I've been a specialist officer most times in my leadership roles when I  went across the counter terrorism strategic policy branch as the  superintendent, and that was the first superintendent ever to be appointed  into that role. Up until that time, it had been inspectors, and it was  the first probably time in my leadership career that

I wasn't able to  draw back on a technical knowledge that I would have, and it really highlighted the need to rely on the  people around you who I didn't know.

I didn't know anyone in that branch  when I went there, and I distinctly remember. And I tell this story a bit after the first week with the number of acronyms that were thrown at me, both  national acronyms, state acronyms.

I actually remember sitting in the car  park one day thinking, Do I come back or do I just keep driving? So that was that  first period of self doubt as a leader.  
And I went to a  mentor of mine within the organization who I won't name. But I remember sitting down and having a cup of tea with this  person and saying, I think you know, they were senior to me. And I said, I think you guys have made a mistake. I think you've put the wrong person in  the wrong place. You put a square peg in a round hole, and this mentor of mine  said to me, No, you're missing the big picture.  
What you bring  to it is you bring the operational context that policy needs to be delivered  in. And it only took those words to me, to give me that level of comfort  again to say I know how I fitted.
And I think that's  really key for a leader to understand your strengths, understand your skills,  But to understand how you fit, What's your piece of the puzzle? What can you  deliver?

Because in that  first week, when I got there and people were talking about policy mechanisms  and these national acronyms, you started to self doubt about "Well, I'm the dumbest person in the room here."

It's not about being dumb, but I don't  understand. And how could I possibly be as knowledgeable as the person sitting across the table over the next few weeks?

Once I understand where  what my fit was there and you start speaking to that senior policy officer  and saying yes, but how does this fit in the operational delivery of  counterterrorism operations in Queensland. How do we deliver this on the  front line? You start to realize that you're bringing your value to the team.
And I think once  once anyone feels that their contribution is valuable, they get a lot  more comfortable in that. So that was probably the biggest pivot I've  taken.
The second thing you  asked me about building my team. Well, it really was about trust at that  point in time, but I actually thought the team we're building me a little  bit. At that time, I relied heavily on the team. I traveled a lot again, Interstate  Nationally, I chaired a number of national forums that were running, Um, and  it really was then about not only fitting in your own environment, but then  how do you fit in the national environments? So you had to rely on your team  very strongly, and I think I was a little bit off putting to the team because  I'd go and sit there and I'd say Hi, I'm Shane. Hello Penny. What do you do  here and really open to listening to what? What the team felt they could  contribute. My second question was How do you think we could do it  differently? And it was really interesting some of the stuff that people  would bring forward when you engage them in that way. So it really was about  building trust with the team. And I think understanding again, that purpose  of fit, I think was really important that, you know, having conversations  with the team and saying, I don't want to be the smartest policy officer in  the room. That's your job. My job is to make sure that we can deliver this  across the organization and nationally across across the country.


So was that policy  unit exposure your earliest exposure to governance?


Absolutely. I  honestly say today and I was actually having a conversation with one of my team this morning, and

I truly believe the movement into this policy unit  was the most changing point in my career. It really got me to understand the  bigger picture.

So up until then,  I'd very much focused about leading internally and delivering internal  priorities. I definitely focused around delivering community priorities in the Water Police

What this pivot did has allowed me to clearly understand  the alignment of not only my units goals the organizational goals, the state  government's goals, the federal government's goals and even in this role,  international in what we were trying to achieve across counterterrorism say  it was the first time around governance.

It was around those intergovernmental relationships where you might take a position to a national  forum.

But at the same time, you may as a leader, have to make that decision  to trade that away and give to get the better outcome.

And I think that's  where I see a lot of leaders who are really good young leaders in their own area. But when they are asked to compromise their own assets and give and be  willing to, for sake some of the outcomes for something better, I think  that's the challenge.


So what's a learning  mindset for any listeners who are on their own journeys to leadership?


The one thing I  would say is I understand your position within your unit, understand that  self doubt is a good thing, and that self, at times of self doubt is when you  probably lied your best because you don't have those preconceived ideas but  also understand where the work you're doing fits into the bigger picture, and  be prepared to compromise. Leading national  committees in this space will have exposed you to the challenges of  facilitating across sectors and state jurisdictions.


Can you talk about  some of the leadership insights you gained at this stage of your career?


Thanks, Penny.  Again. I think this is a really rewarding piece of leadership and it was  different again.

This is really where  leadership of influence comes into it because when you're leading in a national forum and a piece of work, as we did that point in time.

We  developed the first ever national countering violent extremism strategy for the country. Countering violent extremism was just starting to appear on the  national agenda in Australia. It was very, very challenging. There wasn't a  lot known about it, and you really did have different views to take into consideration.

Outside of the states and territories, you had academic views.  You had those of non government agencies to take into perspective international views to take into perspective.

And you really needed to  land a piece of work that balanced policing because a lot of police looked  through it from a policing lens right down to the community lens at these  committees we were made up of, not just police.

We were represented. Ministers across the country were also represented at these committees. So leadership in this space really became about influence.

You know, you have different states and territories had different views on the  way things will be to be delivered.

As the chair of that  subcommittee or committee, you spend a lot of time or I spent a lot of time  drinking coffee. It's probably where I developed my bad coffee habit, Um,  drinking coffee with people and understanding their point of view,  understanding what it is, what it is that they're holding onto and what's  negotiable and not negotiable in views.

Being able to have a good story  again, being able to have that vision and say, You know, that's what we're  trying to achieve here and not lose sight of the fact that what we were  trying to achieve was at first and say to people we probably won't get this  right the first time around.

You know, we need to  adjust this as we go, but it was really about up until that point when you  lead in a hierarchical organization like the Queensland police service. Some  leaders could just rely back on their authority or rank, you know, to lead  and say, You know, this is the way we're doing it. You can't do that  international forum.


And would you say that it's less successful as a leadership style?


Yeah, I agree with that. I think these days the big challenge now is I think people are set on  agendas or set on parts. And I think if you could come back away from what  the personal agenda is and come back to what you're achieving for the  community, I think you could walk by a lot of those personal agendas.


You have the many  lenses of a very mature leader. Through one of those lenses. you do see the  narrative in what's happening, and you can share a narrative a story, and  that's a really valuable tool to having leadership.


Yeah, I think all  good leaders have got stories to tell, and, you know, we talk about him being  war stories or yarns.

I think you  know, to me when I speak to a lot of my staff, I'm never again speaking about  the past either about where the police services come from and your pre  Fitzgerald days and and now, particularly the young staff coming through, they don't understand what Fitzgerald was and and how it significantly  changed the organization.

It's the same in the national forums. You've got to  understand what it is that you're trying to deliver.

And I think if as a leader, if you if you go for that platinum standard all the time, well,  that's good to aim for. I don't think in practical you're always going to  deliver that. I think it's about, well, let's see if we can deliver something  as a team and then build on our success and build on our success.

And it's probably  one of the things that I've recognized going through the organization. A good leader, I think, is comfortable to come in to a new area and say, "You know,  the person before me my predecessor has done a fantastic job and my job is to build on their success."

Too often I see in leaders they come into an area and  you know they have to build their narrative that everything is broken and I'm  here to fix it, and I think that's really dangerous approach to take as a leader because a lot of your team that when there are those same people that you're saying, delivered a broken system.

And I think if that's that's about  making the leader feel more comfortable and why they're there without being  able to recognize previous success, and I think that's a real challenge these  days


I sometimes wonder  whether it's because leaders go in and feel that they have to demonstrate  that they are capable of cultural change, leading cultural change.


I often say to  people I can never to me I'll never lie to my staff that can never be  untruthful to you. That's  a really bad flaw. I'll go in and I'll  never say to people. I'm not going to change anything. Of course I'm going to  change something because we're going to evolve. We're going to build on  success. We're going to learn from our failures. We're going to build on  those failures. But I think as a leader you really need to understand all the  levers that if you pull a lever here, something else happens there. You  need to understand those nuances before before you start criticising or  before you start changing stuff, you need to understand the circumstances and  the environment that that was delivered in, and that was very much so in the  national forums.

When you're trying  to deliver national policy or or state policy, you need to understand the  broader environment that's being delivered in.

Unfortunately, while we're a  political in the organization, anyone who says they don't engage or understand politics, I don't think you can be an effective leader in a  community or in a national space without understanding both the little P and  big politics and


Shane, We've heard a  lot about the successes and the opportunities within policing and within your  career in policing. But I think it's important for those people who are on  leadership journeys who are listening to learn about how failures have  informed your growth as a leader.


Thanks, Penny. I  think it's really important as a leader that you reflect back whenever you're  looking at your leadership journey to actually reflect back on some of your  failures or challenges that you've had over the time.

One in particular  that I will talk about is probably those early stages of being a leader and  when particularly an organization like ours, where you come up through the  organization.

One of the challenges you face is still wanting to be seen as connected to the front line of an organization.
Where your roots of the organization where you've come from - and then taking that step into the  leadership role around having to make decisions and hard decisions for the better of the organization.

And that probably struck with me back when I  was an inspector and I spoke before about being able to draw my technical  knowledge as a water police officer, which was a benefit but one of the failings.

There was my  inability to listen to what have changed, what was modern now and what was  what was the views of the officers now and not being sensitive to the times  that had changed and being prepared to forge ahead. So I would say one of my  biggest failures there was relying on my own technical knowledge early on,  without taken the time to understand what was happening in the environment.
And again, I've done that in some of my other specialist  areas as well, and it's something that I always keep check on now is ‘Have I  got the right picture and am I listening to the staff or am I running off my  own preconceived ideas or my own technical knowledge?’

And I think that's a  real key thing to look forward.

The other failure, I would say early on  I spoke very briefly about this being prepared to engage with risk. I think  my other failure early on was about avoiding risk. And I don't think that you  can avoid risk in in a leadership role, and you really need to understand  risk.
Avoidance of risk is not a good outcome and what I talk about risk.  I'm not talking about a single risk that pops.

I'm talking about the  broader understanding what has to be done, where you need to have your focus  and as a leader.

The best way to avoid risk is to micromanage over top of it, and early on it was really about. This is a risky area. I've got to be in charge of that. I've got a micro manage over top of risk. I want to avoid risk. I don't want that risk to be there anymore. And what that results for me - I was a superintendent at the time actually resulted in a catastrophic outcome in my area because you took your vision away from the big picture and you're focused on a single area.

So I think as a leader, you've got to be  prepared to dive down into what you need to dive down into. But don't stay  there too long.

You satisfy yourself that there's adequate controls and measures in place, but get back up to where a leader should be and make sure that you're looking at the entire  system and not just one area.

So really, I'd say, embrace your failures.  There's many of them. They don't have to be big. Could be a conversation  you've had and you've walked away from that conversation going. You know, I  really didn't handle that situation that well and probably one of my key  learnings out of it. Even today, I still keep a reflection journal. Not every  day I don't keep a diary, but when things don't quite go so well, you've got  to find that time to sit back and reflect and say, What was my part in that  in that not going so well.


Shane, thank you for  taking us on a journey through the early part of your leadership career in  the Queensland Police Service. You're a storyteller, and through the art of  narrative, you have shared vignettes that capture you across a range of roles  as you build your leadership career in each of the vignettes you provided us  with context, experience, challenges, rewards and takeaways for others on  leadership journeys, you've been so generous.

And in typical  mentoring manner, you have taken the time to demonstrate that a leadership  journey is multifaceted, filled with opportunity, risk, challenges and  rewards. And above all of that leadership is a lifelong journey of learning  about yourself.

I'm really looking  forward to part two of our conversation when you're going to take us on a  journey through your senior and executive leadership roles and provide deep  insights into your current and most rewarding Assistant Commissioner role as Operations, Commander Covid 19 with QPS. Thank you again, Shane.


Thank you, Penny.  It's been great to be here, even just talking about this today.

It's been a good  reflection back on leadership points That should always take time to reflect  on. So thank you.