Lessons from Home

Lessons from Home


Public speaker and law enforcement professional Paul Butler speaks to the Kentucky Sheriffs Association Conference held recently in Louisville at The Galt House. (Photo by Kelly Foreman)

Before ever putting on a badge, former Horry County (S.C) Chief Deputy Sheriff Paul Butler first learned leadership from his parents, while growing up on a South Carolina tobacco farm. They didn’t have titles or “fancy” education, but what Butler’s parents had were values that they instilled in their son, who has served in various law enforcement roles including sergeant, crisis negotiator, training officer, chief of police and chief deputy.

Now, Butler spends his time imparting those lessons of leadership that he learned, both back home and on the beat, with law enforcement across the country, as he shared recently with Kentucky officers during the annual Sheriff’s Association Conference held at the Galt House in Louisville.

Owning It

Butler described his father, who was born in 1913, a year after the Titanic sank, as having survived the Great Depression before being drafted into World War II.

Paul Butler (Photo provided)

Paul Butler (Photo provided)

“Father knew that if you were going to make it in life, you had to be tough enough to make tough decisions,” he said. “For (law enforcement) when that decision makes it to your desk, someone has to own it. Ownership is leadership. Own those problems, own those decisions, own those policies and procedures. Whatever it is, make sure it’s yours. And if you’re not proud of it, don’t allow it.”

Butler’s father ran their farm that way and worked his way up to foreman in a construction company. He believed that the way to the top was to outwork everyone around. There were no “small deals” to Butler’s father.

“(Dad) told us to take what we were given in life and do the best with it. That (principle also) works in our offices these days,” he said, noting that a problem with many agencies is that they are looking at others and saying they could do more if they only had what their neighbor has.

Two chief complaints among agencies, whether they are a 15-person agency in South Carolina or 20,534-person agency in California with a $2 billion budget, is that they don’t have enough money or enough people.

“Folks, it’s never enough. It’s never easy,” explained Butler. “It was never meant for you to have more (officers) than you have citizens…It’s never meant for you to have more money than you need. Why you are elected or put in these positions is because you are the stewards over whatever they have. You are to take what they have and maximize the potential of it. That’s what a leader does.”

Addressing Age

Despite differences, Butler said he is not one to “dog” the younger generations, many who are entering law enforcement, because of the example set by his father.

While the age range between his oldest and youngest child was 18 years, Butler’s father never had trouble with the generation gap, because his values, work ethic and rules never changed. Everyone had to work to his standards. There was no idle chatter. When he said “yes” it meant definitely. When he said “no” it meant never.

Speaking with Clarity

It’s always important to talk to one’s audience in terms they understand, the seasoned officer said. “We (children) were happiest in the world when father said “good job, it’s time to go home,” after a long day’s work on the farm. Those words weren’t said because their father was tired or because it was getting late, but because he was proud of what they had accomplished. They didn’t have to guess his meaning.

Additionally, words need to mean something. Leaders are deluding praise in hopes that all feel they are doing a good job, whether they are or not. At some point, those employees will start to question if their leader is out of touch or isn’t paying attention to who’s doing a good job, Butler explained.


“You have to be willing, every now and then, to discipline and make sure they know you mean what you say,” said Butler to the room full of law enforcement leaders, noting his father never disciplined his children in anger.

Everyone nowadays thinks discipline stems from anger, however, in real leadership, discipline is a result of wrongdoing. If an employee is wrong, hold them accountable, if they aren’t, don’t make a big show out of it, Butler continued. While discipline is vital in every agency, home and community, what it is not is a tool to manipulate but rather to motivate.


Whenever Butler’s father was asked by his children about an issue, he would turn the question back to them asking them what could be done better.

“Do any of you have officers in your leadership positions who spend all their time asking you what to do? We need to start empowering them to make those decisions then rating them,” Butler advised. “They need to hear not just the “good jobs” but (receive) guidance. That’s what leadership looks like.”

What keeps many leaders from making tough decisions is fear that someone won’t like them. That no one will come to their retirement party, or in turn, invite them to theirs. But, according to Butler, leading is not a popularity contest.

“The toughest man on me in my life was my father; I miss him every day,” Butler said choking back tears. “I would give five years off my life to get five more minutes with him... But (he) let us know the stakes were high and what the standard was to meet every time.”

Counterbalance with Compassion

If Butler’s father was the king of accountability, his mother was the queen of hearts, said the former law enforcement officer. She spent every day of her life caring for her children, each morning telling them they were the best and the best looking—even though, looking back on their school pictures, Butler said the last part wasn’t exactly true.

“If you want people to follow you, they don’t have to believe what you believe,” Butler said.” But, they have to believe that you believe it. You have to believe what you say.”

There is usually some good in everyone, finding that good was something that came naturally to Butler’s mother.

“You’ve got to hear that positive voice in your life sometimes,” Butler explained. “We need to hear it. You can’t just hear the hard rules…what builds your ego, what builds your confidence is hearing someone tell you that you are the best and that you can do it.”

Encouragement and Support

Sharing a childhood memory, Butler recalled being 5-years old in a church Christmas play. There weren’t a lot of people in the room, but his mother was on the front row, smiling from ear to ear with pride for her son. At the end of the show, she rushed the stage like it was a Broadway play, taking his chubby face in her hands and saying, “You were the best one up there. You stole the show. You made it worth coming to.” Admittedly, Butler was not playing a significant role, in fact, he was playing a tree. But his mother knew that if he was ever going to be center stage, the way to get him there was not by criticizing, but by telling him he did a good job and that he would do even better when he was given more responsibility.

“Think about the motivation it takes to build leadership,” Butler noted. “You may be the only voice of motivation someone ever hears.”

Leaders often end up filling a parental role. This doesn’t mean to treat employees like children, Butler said. Instead leaders should love those under them whether they like them or not.

“You have to make sure they know that the highest standard you can have in your office is love and respect, and that’s a trick sometimes,” he said. “But you may be the only parent some of them have ever experienced. You have to be willing to be like your daddy and let them know they aren’t doing well enough, that you expect more out of them. But don’t be afraid to be like your momma and say, ‘You are the best and best looking, and you are able to do great things. You can make it. You can do greater things than even you believe possible.’”

For more information about Paul Butler, visit his web site.

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