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Bill Bratton reveals what his 'biggest mistake' taught him about ambition

Former two-time New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has learned a lot in his decades-long career, during which he also served as Police Commissioner of Boston and Los Angeles Chief of Police.

But in a new interview with CNBC Make It, the consummate cop reveals he’s never learned more about the intricacies of leadership then he did after making his “biggest professional mistake,” which happened during his time serving under then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The differences the two had during his time as commissioner — including a tiff over a 1996 Time magazine cover that seemingly gave Bratton primary credit for New York’s crime drop — led to Bratton’s resignation just two years after Giuliani appointed him to the role.

Police Commissioner William Bratton announcing resignation with Mayor Rudy Giuliani at City Hall. 
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Police Commissioner William Bratton announcing resignation with Mayor Rudy Giuliani at City Hall. 

“I regretted that, I still regret it,” Bratton says of his ending with Giuliani. “The mistake I made with the mayor was, using the term, I didn't 'stay in his headlights' — I didn't stay close enough to him and to his vision.”

The takeaway — that balancing personal ambition and a boss's vision can be difficult — reinforced an earlier experience Bratton had when he was just making a name for himself on Boston’s police force. Having been promoted to the Boston Police Department’s number-two position in 1980, Bratton was interviewed for his first big magazine profile.

On the Red Line, William "Bill" Bratton takes his first ride as new MBTA Police Chief, with John Aylward, Pres. of the MBTA Police Union.
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On the Red Line, William "Bill" Bratton takes his first ride as new MBTA Police Chief, with John Aylward, Pres. of the MBTA Police Union.

“I commented that someday I'd like to be the police commissioner,” he recalls. “The sitting police commissioner at that time took some offense at that, and within about a year I was gone. So sometimes, you know, you have to really be very mindful of your audience when you make comments or make projections, because not all ears hear it the same way.”

After leaving New York, Bratton moved on to a successful seven-year run as Los Angeles’ Chief of Police, during which crime fell for six consecutive years.

“I worked very hard working for the next three mayors I worked for to stay within their headlights,” Bratton says. “Leadership, sometimes, is the idea that you're the lone wolf, if you will, but oftentimes leadership is also learning to stay within the parameters of those that you are working for — other leaders.”

— Video by Zack Guzman with additional reporting from Telemundo's El Poder En Ti

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