A pragmatic approach to understanding police leadership

Just because you wear stripes, bars, clusters, or stars, does not make you a leader


The word ‘leader’ seems to be thrown around so often these days that I wonder if it hasn’t lost its meaning to many of those individuals who so freely use it. In fact, it often seems that to a lot of people, the term may never have had any meaning to begin with but is used simply as a ‘buzz’ word in an attempt to gain credibility with those whom they wish to ‘lead.’

To begin, let’s look at the term ‘bad leader.’ In my book, there is no such animal. Either you are a leader or you aren’t. This also goes along with the term ‘effective’ leadership. If you are a true leader, you are effective. If you are an ‘ineffective’ leader, then you are not a leader.

The title of ‘leader’ is a badge that is earned and bestowed upon you by others, not one you can legitimately give yourself. Once again, either you are one or you aren’t. This ability automatically come with the promotion — just because you wear stripes, bars, clusters, or stars, does not make you a leader.

Instinctive Followership
Individuals get promoted to the position of ‘supervisor,’ or ‘manager,’ or ‘administrator,’ but not to ‘leader.’ In fact, many leaders are those among us who have no official rank at all, but are the individuals others go to when the times get tough. I’ve witnessed times in which officers have instinctively bypassed supervisors at a scene and gone straight to a fellow patrolman for answers, advice and direction.

This is not (necessarily) out of disdain for the supervisor, but because the officer knew he needed solid guidance that he felt he was able to obtain from an officer other than the supervisor. 

As for the supervisor, what led to that officer’s negative perception of them? Quite frankly, any number of things can contribute to that, including a history of poor decisions or indecisiveness, a general lack of respect for the individual (let alone as a supervisor) and even the supervisor’s time as an officer.

Then there’s the fact that some folks may just not be cut out for the job of leader.

Instinctive Leadership
It’s said that some leaders are born and some are made, but my jury is still out as to whether there’s truth to the theory that with the proper training and guidance, anyone can be a leader. I argue that a big part of leadership is instinct and instinct is developed through training and experience, not just in a classroom. Folks can train and train and train, but if they just don’t ‘get it,’ that is, thoroughly understand the material presented, the principles thereof, and are able to put it into context with regard to the environment they work in, they can’t develop the necessary instincts to be a leader.

Basically, they haven’t developed the moral authority to lead.

Then we have bad decisions.

The saying goes, “A bad decision is often better than no decision at all.”

I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement, but to it I add this caveat: It sure helps if the individual making the bad decision is backed up by credibility earned through a history of demonstrating good decision-making abilities. Consistently bad decision-making on the part of a supervisor begs for that individual to often step aside and do nothing at all... instead, acquiescing to another officer with the right instincts for the time.

Bad decisions also go hand-in-hand with indecision. In our line of work, indecisiveness means hesitation and hesitation can get someone killed. Indecision can also waste a fleeting window of opportunity to act.

As stated before, hesitation is time and opportunity lost. An opportunity lost may never present itself again. Again, it all comes back to instinct, and instinct involves timing.

Invaluable Fundamentals
A lack of technical knowledge and expertise is a deal-killer as well. It’s hard to motivate someone to perform a task if you yourself have never done the same thing effectively (or even at all) and demonstrated your own competence. The leader will also continue to do those things whenever possible, demonstrating to the troops they can and to encourage their own development as officers.  Simply put: ‘leading from the front’ or, ‘follow me.’

Weak character (or lack thereof) is an important variable too. As a young, wet-behind-the-ears recruit, my FTO once told me that we couldn’t do this job without making mistakes.

How right he was. From a supervisory standpoint, how the supervisor has handled themselves during times of difficulty — particularly those involving officers under their command who have ‘stepped in it’ — is a deciding factor. Did the supervisor accept responsibility and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the officer, even if the officer was clearly in the wrong? Did the supervisor support and assist the officer through the tough time or did he sell his officer out in order to keep his own record unsullied?

Does the supervisor place the welfare of his troops above or below his own? A leader will understand that everyone makes mistakes and look upon those instances as learning experiences for both his officer and himself. Officers cannot be afraid to make mistakes, especially because of how they perceive a supervisor will treat them when they do.

An officer who is afraid to make a mistake will not make use of their full potential. A leader lets his officers know that he expects mistakes to be made and also works with his troops — through training and mentoring — to minimize the impact a mistake may have. A leader will also recognize that mistakes are learning opportunities as opposed to character flaws and react to them in that sense.

A wise, old (okay, he’s not that old but he is retired) police officer and mentor of mine once told me that ethics in law enforcement does not mean being a puritan, but ‘walking the walk.’ That applies to being a leader as well. How you conduct yourself — not only at work but also in your personal life — impacts your ability to be viewed as a leader to those around you. We all have our issues at one time or another, but its how we handle ourselves during the trying times that defines us as human beings.

People on the outside are watching us as we cope with the negatives in our lives and like it or not, judge us by how we do it. It is the responsibility of a leader to recognize when one of the troops is having a tough go at it and to be there to help them when they can. However, due to varying factors, leaders aren’t always afforded that same courtesy and often times must navigate these times on their own while still performing their duties on the job.

Yet these are just the times that your people look at you to see what you’re really made of and can make or break you in the realm of credibility and respect. As tough as it may be, these are the times that really define you as a leader.

Keep Your Grades High
In closing, ask yourself a couple of questions:

Do you conform to the same principles when you are under stress as you do when you are directing others?
Do you walk the same walk during these times of personal strife that you espouse to others when you are supervising them?

Remember, everything in life is a graded event. As a leader, you are always being watched. 

About the author

John Bennett is a lieutenant with the Charleston (IL) Police Department and is in his nineteenth year with that agency. John’s career has been spent at the patrol-level and includes an eight year stint as the department’s first canine handler; during which time he handled a dual-trained Malinois, Rex. John is a black belt martial artist and in addition to his patrol and supervisory duties at the police department, is the chief firearms and defensive tactics instructor for his agency. John currently supervises a training staff of five instructors. An instructor himself, John holds numerous instructor certifications and specializes in use of force, defensive tactics and tactical firearms instruction. John has trained officers both in and outside his agency for more than 16 years; nationally and abroad. John can be reached by emailing rexdog8394@yahoo.com.

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