10 truths of police leadership

Integrity is its own reward, and other lessons drawn from longtime service


With the knowledge of leadership experience gained in several agencies — good and bad — I’ve used my “gift” (see #7) of keen observation and analysis to formulate some truths that are common threads. See if any of my truths ring true for you, and add any you’ve discovered in the comments field below.

1.) No good deed goes unpunished.
Unfortunately, this negative truth can often mean the most diligent, hard-working officers get more than their share of the workload. As a leader, do you choose the easy way of handing out assignments to known performers who won’t complain, rather than motivating slugs to perform?

2.) It is NEVER so bad it can’t get worse.
Another potential negative, but a turn for the worst must be planned for, especially during critical incidents (a la Murphy’s Law). Plan for the worst and then plan for it to get still worse. You must always have (or be prepared to quickly formulate) a Plan B, C and D. And E.

3.) You can learn more from bad leaders than you learn from good ones.
Sometimes it is difficult to define what makes a good leader “good.” But it is usually very easy to define what makes a bad boss “bad.” Just do the opposite and you’re off to a good start.

4.) You can either DO the right thing or BE the right thing.
Colonel John Boyd (of the OODA Loop) used to deliver this “Do or Be” leadership speech:

“You can say and do the right things, to the right people, at the right times, and progress up the ladder and BE. Or you can DO what is right and make a real difference. It may cost you a promotion or even a career. It’s a decision we all have to make throughout our lives and careers: To DO or to BE.”

5.) Integrity is its own reward.
Telling the truth and doing the right thing, even when doing so could cause you problems, will not endear you to the upper management of some agencies (see #4). So, integrity sometimes becomes an internal reward, a personal choice of how to live your life.

6.) No man is a prophet in his own land.
There is truth in the old joke about an expert being a guy with a briefcase more than 300 miles from home. Whether due to jealousy of their expertise or simply ignorance of their talents, top performers may get brushed aside in their own organization.

7.) God gives each of us gifts, but no user’s manual.
I believe every person is endowed at birth with some special talent. The trick is to figure out your gifts and how to use them. As a leader, identify the gifts of your team members and try to put them into positions suited to their unique talents. All too often, people don’t recognize their own gifts.

“To every man there comes that special moment when he will be figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a special thing unique to him. What a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for that work, which could have been his finest hour.”
— Winston Churchill

8.) Work and home lives should be separated as much as possible.
Police officers get paid to do and see the things ordinary citizens don’t want to do or see (or even know about). Taking the crap home with you is always a fine balance between inadequate communication and information overload. But you must communicate with your family and share your feelings, if not the details.

9.) Cops rarely invent a bad attitude.
Many cops develop bad attitudes for either a period of time or a whole career. Why? Generally, because someone screwed them over — someone gave them the ingredients for a bad attitude. The measure of the officer is what they do with the attitude. As a leader, try not to give someone a bad attitude, and help the members of your team work through those they inevitably develop.

10.) You can judge a leader by the enemies they keep, rather than their friends.
In ancient times the great room in a castle was decorated with the standards of both the King’s enemies and allies — they were both held in high regard. You can buy a friend for a beer, but you must truly earn an enemy. Over the years I have come to be proud of the men I call enemies, because no honorable man would ever want to be counted among their friends.

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
— Winston Churchill

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

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