Leading The Force

There have been long debates over whether leadership skills are born within or developed in a person as a product of our environment. I would wager how the emergence of a leader evolves is irrelevant to most of us. What is crucial is the substance in a leader. Often people can point out a great leader when they see one, but have difficulty clarifying preferred qualities when defining the role.

Law enforcement officials have a certain astuteness when it comes to their duties and the emotional intelligence required is unparalleled. It is no mystery the field demands business acumen and more so from its leaders. Police departments today are plagued with societal demands and face more challenges in addressing community problems.

Organizational Quagmires

Nothing is more frustrating to a patrol officer than working under an administration that is stagnant and lacks proactive forward motion. Lack of progressive implementations, technology updates, training, and equipment upgrades challenge many departments. With the new demand for body cameras, technology and equipment are apparently the forefront of public criticism, causing a push for new priorities on department budgets.

First and foremost, we are seeing a change in many organizational structures with the need for vanguards within police leadership. With public trust deteriorating, it has become critical to rebuild community relationships. Leadership standards have to progress and adapt to societal needs without stifling the mission of law enforcement or dampening public safety. One of the most frustrating flaws a leader can have is decision paralysis. In law enforcement this indecisiveness could have malign effect. On the flip side, a dreadful decision could also be life threatening and/or career ending.

Relationships are paramount within the organization itself, especially among the rank and file with regards to their trust in the administration. Internal conflict projects outward and trickles down to ineffective enforcement. Various results of internal relationship breakdowns can attribute to increased community problems and distrust. For example, problems which may cripple a police department are: managerial collapse, promotional disparity, significant morale decline, and strained employee relationships.

Police Management Trends

To confront these establishment issues, a current trend in law enforcement is to seek out successful leaders who may develop from unlikely resources among the ranks and disengage from the traditional chain of command promotions. Police trends are moving toward selecting the most effective leaders for the organizations which may not be those in upper management. Administrators are now looking throughout their department for the ideal leader(s), not necessarily promoting the next in line.

For instance, a sergeant might jump through the ranks to captain because he or she has the desired “character bank” a chief is looking for to effect the necessary improvements in his or her department. In this example, the leadership skillsets trumped the logical chain of command promotion. Police departments who deviate from police advancement paths are adopting private industry management styles which may be contrary to traditions. Although best for an organization, it sometimes creates animosity, disunited opinions, and complications for civil service due to the career selection process being disrupted.

Why are agencies delving into new territory in search of effective leaders? Some of it may come from pressure to upgrade police enforcement and effectiveness in a community and the threat of strict government oversight. The public backlash received on patrol is a daily bombardment which if not addressed, festers into an ineffective enforcement model and lack of public support is detrimental to law enforcement.

Change is now demanded across the United States as we have seen in media blitzes. As discussed before, departments cannot afford to fight progressive change. In order to combat community problems, streamline an organization, and drive forward, administrators must select quality leaders.

Community Collaboration and Police Transparency

So what is needed in law enforcement leadership? It is the magic question.

A leader must build relationships and coalitions both internally and externally to the department. They should foster relationships which allow a collaboration of efforts to improve the force and better serve the community. Communicating in this way also gives transparency to the organization which is an ultimatum from the public. Good or bad, it is the way it is.

When I was a detective, we were selective in our transparence pending an ongoing investigation on any major case, crisis intervention, or tactical operation. We benefitted from an excellent working relationship with most of the press. It was a win-win alliance.

Now, several years later, if you choose to postpone the release of information, albeit best for the investigation, the media scrutinizes a department’s reputation and integrity. Although most often unwarranted, the accusations tarnish an administration’s credibility. By constructing community relationships, these instances can be avoided.

In many cases, the public just desires a press release or public statement to suffice until the investigation can become unrestricted. The “secret squirrel” days of police work are very limited with technology capabilities and the constant demand for public information. Should police delay with public safety information under the watchful eye of their community, everything becomes the subject of microscopic examination.

Community policing is not a new concept; it has been rejuvenated. Citizen academies, community projects and events, and synergism between police and society is essential. While assigned to patrol duty, I often built a good rapport with citizens in my area. It was just how I worked. At times, it was just a friendly chat on the corner. Perhaps it involved taking extra time to refer people to the right services or solving a civil matter rather than waving it off as a non-law enforcement issue. The best information came from asking citizens what they would like to see improve in their neighborhood with regards to enforcement. Not only did I ask the questions, I followed through with action. This was a foundation of trust which led to me receiving good intel and cooperation to combat criminal activity.

Spreading the Wealth

Perhaps you picture leaders to be the ones always in charge or in positions of administrative authority. While most often these types of personalities move up the chain of command in a police organization, leaders are not always “the brass.” Sometimes they are patrol level officers. For example, they might be the ones who lead their peers on a dynamic call, execute sound decisions on a daily basis, and are the first ones to buy lemonade at the corner stand manned by kids. Additionally, they have suitable community relations within their beat area.

Some common traits might be consistent upward mobility in their evaluations, increased productivity with regards to standards and proactive work, and vigorous career growth. However, there are those who never move up the ranks, but are considered strong leaders by their peers. It is not uncommon for a police organization to have leaders at every level. Chain of command is important for supervisory impacts, however, all officers at any level of rank are after the same outcomes and members of the team.

Company Buy-In

Idea generation and concept building are part of a leadership model necessary to adapt to the environmental changes of police work. Leaders must allow company “buy-in” from all ranks by soliciting group process and input. Questions are often persuasive devices which foster ideas. When leaders use teamwork without focusing on rank as a means to generate concepts, all parties feel more attached and invested in an organization. Positive results are likely to follow if the bottom believes they matter to the top and participation in change is more probable. Not only is it important to have idea generation at every level, but leaders must also motivate each member to take responsibility, accountability, and action.

Driving Results

Police management styles are currently adapting with societal changes for the sole purpose to better our communities and quality of life, promote public safety, and reduce crime. Police leaders not only need to implement positive change and progress, but they need to drive results. Ideas are worthless without motivation and action. Those implementing change must lead by example and if the change is not visible, management effectiveness is unfavorable. Ultimately, the community will notice and support will diminish.

At one time, a police leader was one who had wisdom and courage above all else; however, in today’s times, a law enforcement leader has evolved into a multi-faceted person. There may be many traits which distinguish a leader from a manager. Managers are common, leaders are not. Effective leadership qualities include high ethics, integrity, confidence, prominent communication skills, commitment to the police organization and its troops, intuition, and the ability to inspire and motivate others. The list of requirements could go on to incorporate additional characteristics. Certainly, great leaders are also those who persevere and continue to be focused throughout their police career. They fuel a department’s success. What do you think makes a true leader?