When you lead an organization that gives several hundred armed people, many of them young men in their 20s, the authority to take away people’s freedom, pressure is bound to follow.
Tom Knight faced that, what he calls controlled chaos, for 12 years. As the elected sheriff of Sarasota County he oversaw a 1,100-person agency that handles law enforcement for some 440,000 people. And Knight, now CEO of First Step of Sarasota, a mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment and prevention facility, was a police officer for 20 years prior to being elected sheriff.
I’ve know Knight for at least a decade. And in talking to him recently about the arc of his career, I discovered a lot about how his leadership style and approach can transfer to nearly any other business or nonprofit leader.
Some key points: humor can be a valuable asset, used at the right times, to diffuse heated and difficult situations — and help a leader be more relatable to his or her team. Another one? Being authentic — one of the newer clichés of good leadership — only works if you are doing it consistently and not catering to the whims of crowds. (“Respect doesn’t come with the title,” Knight often tells newly-elected sheriffs. “It’s earned.”) Another leadership cliché, that it’s all about relationships? That’s one more element of Knight’s success.
‘Be sure to build bridges. The respect doesn’t come with the title. You have to earn that part of it.’ Tom Knight
A look back at his leadership career highlights includes:
• From the time he was 15 until he was 22, Knight worked for his dad, a World War II veteran who ran a mason business. The younger Knight, growing up in Venice, south Sarasota County, laid bricks for his dad. “That’s where I learned a lot about leadership,” Knight says. “I learned accountability, being reasonable with people and the things that make up work ethic.”
• Early in his law enforcement career, at the Florida Highway Patrol, Knight was the first non-supervisory trooper to be selected for a management class. Soon after that his supervisors, Knight recalls, gave him an assignment few others sought: running a unit in the Florida Panhandle town of Marianna, just south of Alabama — with an old South culture to match the rural location.
Knight says the unit had “23 cowboy-hat wearing, pistol-shooting officers.” In his first week, one of the veterans of the crew, Knight says, got in his face and said “’we have a certain way of doing things around here and we don’t plan on changing.’”
“I was already up against the wall,” Knight says. “I was intimidated and nervous. My first instinct was to punch him in the face.”
Instead, Knight says he took the time to get to know each officer, one-on-one. That was a key leadership moment for Knight. It’s when he learned that a kind spirit — backed with the authority and accountability the job requires — goes much further than fighting jerks by being a bigger jerk.
• Knight’s next assignment was similar in that he was put into a unit that also had an established, and mostly closed-to-outsiders, culture. This was in the Miami area; at least 75% of the troopers in the unit were of Cuban descent. Again, Knight met with people one-on-one, got to know their interests, likes and dislikes. “It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “Harder than running the sheriff's office.”
Knight began everyday with the same mantra: to find common ground. That’s a theme he used often later on his career, to diffuse volatile situations. “Most people just want to be listened to,” he says. “They want to talk about themselves, but what they really want is someone to listen to them.”
• Knight often counsels newly-elected Sheriffs in other Florida counties on a wide range of leadership issues. His advice follows his career experience. “I tell them, ‘you feel good, you just won the election, you’re an imperial King,’” Knight says. “But be sure to build bridges. The respect doesn’t come with the title. You have to earn that part of it.”
• More recently, Knight learned another hallmark of good leadership: the ability to change quickly — and lead by example in embracing that change in front of the team. One big example is with the policies of the Sarasota Sheriff’s SWAT Team.
Instead of busting a door down with a warrant in search of suspects, and likely, drugs, Knight directed deputies to take a less aggressive, yet still effective, approach. The directive was to, whenever possible, set up a surveillance operation and arrest the suspect in a parking lot or some other open area. That could avoid some of the issues police departments have been facing nationally with warrants, while still protecting the community. “You have to be engaged and contemporary enough to be able to adjust your policing to meet changes in community standards,” Knight says.
• Toward the end of his law enforcement career, in May 2020, Knight was again reminded of the value of being authentic. This was when protests nationwide were escalating into riots over the George Floyd murder. A large crowd had gathered at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, and Knight led a group of deputies monitoring the situation.
Knight walked around the patrol area, chatting with some colleagues. He saw one deputy, who seemed amped — and was wearing black gloves. The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t supply black gloves to deputies, given, Knight says, how they are often used to intimidate. “I’m going to go walk around and talk to some other people and come back in 45 minutes,” Knight told the deputy. “If you feel like you still need to have the black gloves on when I come back, that’s fine, just hand in your resignation tomorrow. If not, take the gloves off and we’ll handle this together.”
The deputy took the gloves off. And there were no riots that night in Sarasota, partially because Knight stopped to chat with nearly every protester. (“I’m pissed off too about what happened,” Knight told many of the protestors. “But I’m out here tonight to make sure nothing bad happens to any of you or us.”)
For Knight, it was a sense of relief wrapped around the idea that, again, what people want is someone to listen to them. “We’re in a scary business, he says. “I was scared that night. But we get paid to be scared. And we don’t pick fights with people. We deescalate situations.”
• In his latest leadership role, his first outside law enforcement, Knight is helping bring two agencies together: First Step of Sarasota merged with Coastal Behavioral Healthcare in July 2020, a move to provide greater efficiencies and scale. Knight’s main goal is to not only merge the organization’s financial ledgers but also blend both cultures. He’s leaning on some past lessons, including taking the time to get to know staff.
Another step Knight is taking, similar to his law enforcement leadership stints, is to create a standard from the top that the focus is always on the mission. “We have to make sure they all know,” Knight says, “that the organization is bigger than any one person’s needs.”