Great leadership is about inspiration, not intimidation. Someone who leads by example rather than force.
It’s also about living authentically, believing in the ability of both yourself and your team, as well as acting courageously, speaking the truth and confronting traditions.
None more so can be said for honouree of the ATHENA Leadership award, Una Jennings.
Una is South Yorkshire Police’s District Commander and Chief Superintendent for Rotherham, having been selected for the role last summer.
Her credentials speak for themselves, with two masters’ degrees and a 17-year policing career spanning across Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and South Yorkshire Police.
That aside, Una shows true leadership qualities to steer policing in Rotherham into a positive future – and bring back a strong sense of pride in not only those who live there, but the dedicated and hard-working officers who police its streets.
“Being a woman in policing, I’ve always shown its masculine traits, both in substance and character. There is no doubt who’s in charge. I’m very direct and can make decisions without quivering which is something you need to be when leading on serious crimes.
“But I also emote better as a woman. You need to have empathy to emotionally connect with and have compassion for the people you are paid to support – colleagues as well as the general public. I’m very comfortable with that and I often say it feels like I’m metaphorically hugging you,” Una says.
You can’t light a fire with a wet match and, in her current role, Una is using her influence and enthusiasm to leave behind a legacy much better than anything our younger generation could ever imagine.
One of her main aims as district commander is to raise aspirations and ambitions in young people to realise that they are only limited by what they believe in themselves.
“The best advice I have ever been given is that if you look up in your place of work and can’t see someone like you, you’re probably in the wrong organisation.
“Seeing a woman leading, and leading well, is a powerful statement of intent and I think it’s fate that the current leaders of the police, NHS, fire service and council in Rotherham are all women. We need more positions with influence to be held by women for young girls to see qualities that they recognise in themselves.
“But we also need to be careful how we frame senior women. It’s still very difficult and we often are labelled as aggressive or bossy just for being direct – would men receive the same critique?”
Where it all began
As a young law graduate from Queen’s University Belfast, Una decided to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland to protect the community she believed she looked, felt and thought like.
She had grown up in those streets she’d be treading, walking on both sides of the thin blue line in one of the top three most deprived areas in Derry, Northern Ireland.
But it is those streets which shaped the person she is today.
She wasn’t born into privilege or with the path to success already laid out and paid for her. Her mother had her at 15 in a convent in Count Armagh during the 1970s when Una should have been given up for adoption.
“My mother knew then at 15 what the right thing to do was and so she brought me home to Donegal. I’ve learnt courage from her and also right and wrong.
“As a child I was always encouraged to read and have opinions from an early age, particularly as a Catholic growing up in a mainly Protestant area.”
This way of unrestrained thinking and ambition led Una to achieve the unimaginable. She was the first person from her family, school and community to join the police and some 15 years later, as a single mother, received her master’s degree in Criminology from Senate House, Cambridge. She’d already gained a master’s in human rights.
Great highs have also been marred by catastrophic lows, including the murder of her colleague, Ronan Kerr, in 2011. As a Detective Chief Inspector of the Serious Crimes Unit at the time, Una was part of the lengthy homicide investigation which was tasked with finding the killer and supporting Ronan’s family.
Yet despite this terrorist attack against the police, Una is still steadfast in her belief that good policing is more than just about fighting crime.
“In my 17 years, most of them spent as a murder detective, I’ve met very few truly bad people but plenty of broken ones. Most people we meet in such circumstances are at their lowest eb.
“We are there to rebuild society – be that trust, hope, education, ambition, social mobility, peace or health. This is the first time I’ve been the boss and I believe in doing things that are important to me.”
Leading South Yorkshire Police into positive future
After many years in Belfast, Una transferred to South Yorkshire Police in 2017 and has since developed an emotional connection she never expected. She might not be from round here – her accent being the biggest give away – but she is still proud to lead the town into what lies ahead.
“No matter how good at my job I am, I can’t mitigate others’ work but I am trying to make this force in Rotherham proud to put their uniform on and there is a hell of a lot exceptional work being done that we should celebrate.
“Nothing is black and white and I recognise that we make mistakes but leadership is not unlike parenting. I feel a sense of responsibility and take things personally but either I put my whole heart into it or it’s the highway to nothing. The public are relying on me to make the police force the best it can be, for them to feel confident in us. The ambition I have for us as a force is bigger than anything I have for myself.”
Whether that’s by filling the office corridors down at Main Street with success stories or having a monthly leader’s day to share achievements, Una is working hard towards enhancing attitudes and mindsets within the force with the belief that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Since Una took up the post of district commander, processes have been changed and introduced to make sure that victims are at the heart of every single decision – and nothing gets in the way.
Taking response times as one example, officers are now getting to emergency incidents over five minutes quicker and ‘priority’ incidents on average over an hour and 16 minutes faster than they were able to before.