Leadership Strategies for Resilient Communities Transcript

Kevin Oden, Director of Integrated Public Safety in Dallas, offers a glimpse into the innovative approaches and strategic leadership shaping the landscape of integrated public safety and community resilience. 


Craig Weaver: Welcome to Response Leadership, brought to you by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), a leader in response training. We are a podcast bringing you leadership expertise from the top minds in emergency response. I’m your host, Craig Weaver. I work in Marketing and Communications here at TEEX, and today, our guest is Kevin Oden, director of Integrated Public Safety, City of Dallas. Kevin, thanks for joining us today to talk with me.

Kevin Oden: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be on this forum.  

Craig Weaver: Thank you. We’ll dive right in here. What is integrated public service? What is that? It’s a huge question. How did you get to this point? 

Kevin Oden: Absolutely. And, you know, really what we do is, we face the challenges just as a dedicated department that every city or county, state and federal level deal with on a daily basis. So mental health, substance abuse, interrupting cycles of violence, and then focusing on the areas of our city that are considered to be high crime. And so, we have multidisciplinary response teams that help us address some of the behavioral and mental illness, as well as substance abuse challenges in our city that are very significant in a large city like Dallas. We utilize credible messengers in the field, as well as nonprofit groups that know the community better than anybody in the city ever will, to interact with residents, particularly our youth and young adults who may not know or have experienced a lot of the things that we take for granted every day. 

And so, we try to show how opportunities exist, not just outside your area, but within the whole region, to open up new doors, make connections and keep youth and young adults engaged. I think that’s one of the big challenges we face. And then, last, on our crime prevention, we take, generally it’s large, older apartment complexes, but also areas where you see different types of properties that are in the same area that create a risk for future acts of violence. We try to flood those areas not only with traditional law enforcement to deter but then also certain steps such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design and bringing in social services, afterschool programming, all the things that we can use to try to bring investments to communities that at their heart, the reason that we find them to be high crime, quote-unquote, is because of a lack of historic investment. 

 And so that’s our big three areas. And we break it down from there. We’ve got a team of about 150 across all of those different teams that are working on those challenges and others that come to us day in and day out.  

Craig Weaver: This podcast is about leadership. That’s a lot of people to deal with and to work with. How difficult is that to do? 

Kevin Oden: So, you know, when you have a great team that’s bought in, they feel fulfilled. In some cases, it’s just the daily administration of personnel and things that come up with managing your people. I think where the real value is, though, is while we have a significant amount of staff, in the grand scheme of things, we’re still very small. We need and rely on others: police departments, fire departments, our health services and community wellness departments. We have to engage those departments, as well as those not in the city, community-based groups, because really that’s where the change comes, when we’re all pulled together. And so you take these different groups with competing priorities placed upon them. They all have different expectations from the council or the community. And so, we have to work to marry up, where are we working? Why are we working there? How do we get the best out of the finite resources and then celebrate what the accomplishments of those groups are? And so it’s an internal but also an external when you’re trying to manage those things. And so, I think most of my time is spent on the latter, the external. And you got to do it without trying to come in heavy-handed or say, “No, guys, this is the way we’re going to do it.” You know, in my experience here in the city, that’s the quickest way that you might not get anything done. 

Being a good listener and the facilitation skills and those sorts of softer skills are very important to help bring those departments into the fold and let them know that what they do is incredibly valued and makes a difference. I think that’s what all of us in local government are here for, is just to try to make a difference and improve people’s lives, one person at a time. 

Craig Weaver: You mentioned a couple of things. The first thing you said when I asked you about that is having people feel fulfilled. And then you touched on a couple of things about leadership. What is it you think makes a good leader? 

Kevin Oden: Number one is someone who demonstrates very good self-control. The things I’ve learned, I’ve learned them two ways. Either, one, it’s because I screwed up and had to do some self-evaluation. Or number two is I learned from others. I’ll give you an example. The chief there at TEEX, Chief Coatney. He was our fire chief here. One of the lasting legacy statements that sticks with me is what he said. He said, “I had the easiest job in the world. I set the vision, and I turned the experts loose.” And that’s always stuck with me. When you are the director, it isn’t about you dictating the tactics. You have to turn over some things. You have to build the capacity and capability of your staff and see them continue to promote up within the organization. 

And so, number one is self-control. I think an even keel and approaching every day consistently, not getting too high, not getting too low. When you win, you win, and you move on. When you lose, you lose, and you move on. But take advantage of your moments. And then three other quick things that we really value here as a team, and this really is what our team built, and we hold each other accountable, how we set our desires or the perception of what we’re trying to do. We must be able to perceive and have an end state we’re building towards.  

Number two is our discipline. So, when things affect us that we can control, are we spending our time doing what we know we should be doing and avoiding the things that distract us? 

And then last is our dedication. So, when things externally put pressure on us or affect us, are we dedicated to sticking to the end state that we’re trying to build towards and not going down different trails and losing sight of what we’re trying to build? Those four things, to me, are very, very important. And to our staff. I think that their culture and what they want this department and their city to be like, I’m kind of an amplifier of that for them. And so that’s what we try to do here day in and day out. 

Craig Weaver: How did you get here? What’s your background? Did you aspire to be in leadership in this respect? 

Kevin Oden: I went to college, and I was going to major in business or something. And one day, I woke up, and I was like, man, I really hate numbers, which is probably not a good thing if you’re going to stumble upon business. I found the major of doing emergency management. My first thought was, I was a kid when Dante’s Peak, the volcano movie came out, so that was the first thought that came to mind. I could be the volcano guy directing things. I quickly found out that it’s definitely not that glamorous of a profession, but I learned through my time in OEM, and I would encourage, frankly, anybody in government, if you want to learn how to get things done in government, go work in OEM where the sky is always falling. And you are trying to get the departments where, “Man, we are just trying to get the trash picked up. And you want me to care about if an asteroid hits Dallas.” If you can get things done at OEM, then you know how to get things done in government. And I see that in our team here. And so I started there. I moved on to helping set up our original multi-disciplined team here in the city, the RIGHT Care Program, which does our mental health response. 

From there, I got an opportunity, literally right before COVID, to lead the Office of Homeless Solutions here. No homeless background at all. 

Craig Weaver: I remember you telling me that. I was thinking that is a monumental thing to be dropped upon you.  

Kevin Oden: It was. We got there on Monday. I was wide-eyed, like, oh my gosh, we got this opportunity. We’re going to fix homelessness in Dallas. Like how difficult could this be? Just totally naive to the realities of the world. By Friday, we’ll be setting up our convention center to serve as the largest shelter in Dallas because COVID hit, and all the other shelters had to adjust for that. So, I got to use the OEM experience for that year there, and I learned a lot. I really think, just as a person not having worked in human services before, that was a super good year for me just to grow, to learn, to understand like, the guy on the street, why wouldn’t he just go to a shelter, it’s so easy right? It’s not. You learn so much in those human services. And then ultimately, when they hired the new director there, I got to come here and be an IPS. This was actually my original destination before they moved me to OHS. It was interesting, our original intent was focusing on properties and high-crime areas and linking together code and PD and our attorneys.  

Like many of the cities and counties in the U.S., after the death of George Floyd happened, we started adding different components of reimagined public safety, and they all kind of fell under this group. I think what was initially intended to be a three-person group has grown into what it is today. I am super grateful for those opportunities. Somewhat being in the right place at the right time has helped me over the years. I think I’ve got a good recognition that there is a lot of opportunities that I have gotten in my career, that maybe others didn’t get, and so I am always trying to think about, for my staff and other is how do we give other people those same opportunities? Step aside, and when you get to a leadership role or a directorship, you don’t have to prove yourself anymore. You just have to make sure the boat makes it to its destination and that you give your people opportunities to stand in the spotlight. You never know what skills they might demonstrate or how they might grow when you do that. And so that’s where I am in my career now.  

The only other thing I’ll say on that, is that this past year has really taught me a lot and made me a lot more aware of the way we really just romanticize about the great leader, like George Patton in the movie and all of that. But the management side of it, and being a really good manager first. No one celebrates just being a good manager. It’s so important because motivating people and doing the whole rah-rah can only get you so far, but if you don’t have the right procedures and standards and data and all that in place, that stuff can fall apart. So that is really where I am in my career right now, is just really honing in on if I’m building the types of thing that as a manager you would be proud of. And building my team to lead obviously, but to be good managers as well.  

Craig Weaver: When you’re in a position where you have something dropped in your lap – “Hey, we want you to try to do what you can to tackle something like homelessness in Dallas” or any of the other big issues you face in your career – where do you start from there? Like as far as resources, where do you go to go when in your head you are like, “I don’t know where to start from here, where do I go?”  

Kevin Oden: That’s a fantastic question. It’s a simple answer. You go to the experts. So, when we were setting up the convention center to be a shelter, the first call was to all the shelters in Dallas, asking them, how do we do this? When I was in OEM, you know, we faced Ebola here in Dallas. You remember, Nina Pham’s dog, Bentley? I remember just conference calls with the CDC, and everybody else is like, well, what do we do with this dog? Can the dog get Ebola? How do we cross this? 

We were fortunate that Texas A&M and their vet clinic came up here, and we converted an old commanding officer’s house on an old naval base up here. We converted the XOs house into a hot, warm and cold zone for the dog to live in. And the A&M vets would go in every day. And so, it’s just those things like, I don’t know anything about Ebola. I don’t know nearly anything about homelessness. But, I have a decent enough Rolodex that we bring those people in. We listen to them and try to act on the best of all the incomplete information without trying to be the one with more than 30% of the answer yourself. 

Craig Weaver: In that respect, when you are in a position looked at as a leader, as a director, for answers, you would say something like, “Well,  I don’t know.” It is important to be, in your opinion as a leader, to be vulnerable and have some humility in terms of trying to figure out answers? 

Kevin Oden: 100%. I think that probably earlier in my career, definitely one of the challenges I struggled with was that I didn’t want to be seen as inadequate, so I wanted to have all the answers. I wanted to be up front and say, “Well, here’s what we’re going to do, and you do this, and you do that.” I learned a lot about how it is more, “What can we do for you at this moment?” And looking at complex moments where we may have more than ten groups, and looking at, “hWat can we do to support you?” And then following through with it. Because, as I said earlier, if we’re at a table in a meeting, and I’ve got more than 30% of the solution in my brain, it’s probably not going to be a good outcome. There’s about a mile worth of beach of knowledge in this head, but it’s all about an inch deep, right? 

So, it’s all just knowing who does what and trying to put them in the position to be successful and be comfortable with being behind the scenes. And sometimes not getting credit is actually a really good thing I’ve found. And not being afraid to be like, “I don’t really want any credit. I’m happy to stand behind the scenes as long as we’re as a team advancing and getting things done for our residents.” That’s where focus should be. 

There is credit and other things to be had out there, like there is elected officials, there are people the public trusts or cares about way more than me or anybody else around here that prepare them to go out and give the talking points and things, because the public listens to them. I think it’s continuous learning and evolution as you face and experience more. You just learn these things. I think even if I had a time machine, and I could go back in time to 25-year-old Kevin and try to give him this type of advice, it may not even stick. It’s just you learn it over time as you to try to advance yourself and better yourself really. 

Craig Weaver: Have mentors been an important factor in your life and career? 

Kevin Oden: 100%. Whether it’s people that have poured into me just like interpersonal throughout my career. You know, folks I still talk to every day or at least weekly, monthly, that I can come to with, “Hey, I’m facing this challenge, what are your thoughts?”  Or in a written word, of other people’s advice or experiences of how they handle things. I think that there’s so much to be learned from the experiences of others that prepare us in ways that we could never prepare ourselves. 

I look at people here all over the city that I go to, whether they’re people I work with all the time or people I’ve barely talked to, like on a business sense, they all have something to offer me that’s a different perspective than how I would see it. And that’s what I value so much. I’ve got my eyes on the world, and my way of seeing things, and others bring you that 360 look at, “You’re not seeing this. This is your blind spot.” And so always welcome that. I think anybody could be a mentor to you, just based on their life experiences. 

Craig Weaver: Well, how would you describe your leadership style? 

Kevin Oden:  If I had to pick two historical figures that I really study a lot and try to model things after. Number one, the former coach of the San Francisco 40 Niners, Bill Walsh, his philosophy of the score takes care of itself, and living in the moment and taking care of all the details you can take care of now. It’s just a mindset that I try to chase after. Don’t get ahead of where we’re at right now in the present, and do everything we can in the present.  

The other that I look at and have learned so much from just how he did things way back, is Marcus Aurelius, from the Roman times. His backstory, his writings and meditations, and everything he says, just from a stoic perspective, have been really helpful to me. Even like where we started, when I talked about being even keel, not getting too high and not getting too low. I mean, those lessons we learned from those back in time. So, a bit of like two very, very different people. I try to model after what I’ve learned from them. 

I think the one thing I would say for anybody trying to enhance their leadership skills is don’t go out and start reading books and trying to adapt to things. It may not be genuine to you. So know who you are, know what your strengths are, know what your weaknesses are, and then seek out those who in the past or who could be mentors to you today, that can augment, that can point out, “Hey, I struggled with this too, or this was my strength.” And build from that foundation instead of just trying to read the latest self-help book that’s like, “If you just follow these seven steps, you’re going to become a millionaire.” There’s so much more nuance to it and more about self-awareness. That is so important to leaders. 

Craig Weaver: I usually ask people that I’m speaking with, “What’s the biggest challenge you face?” And I usually ask it early in the podcast. But, you had mentioned when I asked you a couple weeks ago, two things I wanted you to kind of talk about. These were chasing the yeses and managing expectations. I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone say their biggest challenge was managing expectations. So, I wanted to hear from you about that.  

Kevin Oden: Absolutely. So, when a problem is facing us, it could be like the big shock complex event or just the daily stressors of things that bubble up, like managing at least a division within a city or even a mayor or a city manager or whatever you may be. I think everybody wants someone, that when you throw a problem at them, they are just like, I got this. In many cases, we face challenges, as I mentioned earlier, with high crime properties. These are high-crime properties because of 30, 40, 50 years of design of the environment around it or the investment. 

And so, people expect, well, we’re just going to throw the IPS team at it, and they’re going to fix it in six months. And it just doesn’t work that way, right? Even if we parked a cop car and had social workers and every resource under the sun at some of these complexes, and we kept them there for a year straight, ultimately, you always got to move on. You have got to go to the next property. Some of that stuff is Band-Aids. The real change comes in housing development money, or the bond program, or how we build these areas back up. And how long does it take to build a road? Years and years and years, much less change and entire area. And so, when you take on these big complex challenges as a leader, you need to break it down. What are the phases when you take on these significant, complex challenges like breaking it down as a leader? What can you get done that’s low-hanging fruit? What kind of medium effort/medium impact, and then high effort but high impact?  

Trying to stack up wins early is always what we do. That’s that low-hanging fruit of things you can do while keeping that desire, that perception of where you want to be in the long run. But like I said, I think early in my career, it always was like, “Yeah, they want me to fix this. We’ll get after it and have it done next week.” And it just doesn’t work that way. Whether it’s personal or professional, it was just you got to buy yourself realistic time, but then come back with a realistic of like, “Okay, here’s what our team, not me, but our team, can deliver towards this challenge.”  

Craig Weaver: What would you say is the most rewarding thing about what you do? 

Kevin Oden: Oh, easy. The smiles on either the staff’s faces when they know they did something for someone else or finding out about the work that someone did or the great effort they poured into someone’s life here in the city, and you get to praise them for it. And so, there’s no better feeling than those two things because that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to help improve people’s lives. And so, when it’s either someone’s doing it, or I hear about someone’s doing it, effusive praise on them for their impacts they are making. I think that keeps them motivated. Sometimes I think, well definitely we do this as leaders is, we are like, “Okay, that’s great. We did great there. Throw it over your shoulder and let’s keep moving because there is this other problem to tackle.”  But it’s staff, particularly those who answer live 9-1-1 calls, “It’s on to the next call, it’s on to the next call.” They have got to have time to celebrate when they do something truly special. We need to recognize when we do something good for others. Those are always my best days here for the staff, and I love every chance we get that. I do want to give a plug if I can for TEEX. 

Craig Weaver: Absolutely. 

Kevin Oden:  All our work in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. We had Charlie from y’all’s team come up here, and he did a weeklong class. Charlie is a great facilitator. He did this whole weeklong 40-hour class by himself, which cannot be easy. But he did it, and he was very clear with us. It was the first time he had delivered that class where very few officers were in the room. So, we had some of our detectives there, but the primary people in the class were our crime prevention specialists, which are civilians that have mostly a code enforcement background, but then also some of our city attorneys and the community prosecutors that focus on making some of the changes in properties and, you know, taking people to court when they’re not compliant. 

We had that multi-discipline type team take this class. Ever since then, we have seen the knowledge that Charlie passed on to us, just help us take off. Total plug for Charlie, for that class and that effort just investing in us. And it helped us take off as a group. And so, we’re super appreciative of TEEX and y’all pouring that into us. 

Craig Weaver: That’s great. Well, thank you personally for your time in sharing with us. It’s been great talking with you. Thank you. 

Kevin Oden: I just feel honored to be on the podcast. I went on the website and just seeing some of the people you’ve interviewed over time. Number one, I was a bit jealous of you, being able to hear from and learn some of these things from others, but number two, just honored that you would include us in this group.  

Craig Weaver: Thank you for listening to Response Leadership brought to you by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you did, please leave a review and follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts, visit us at teex.org/podcast. 

New episodes are released on the fourth Tuesday of every month.