How to be the architect of your police leadership career
Hard work and self-improvement is not just the path to positional success – it is the path to true leadership
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Architect a leadership career | Who counsels the chief? | Policing the hot spots, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
It was early in my career that I decided I wanted to be the boss. I was frustrated (and envious) when I saw others moving up in rank seemingly by sheer luck. A sudden vacancy, preferential treatment and being in the right place at the right time seemed to have more influence on the opportunity for advancement than did enthusiasm, hard work and preparation for advancement.
While there are many factors in promotion over which you have no control, here are some things you can focus on and develop, with the hope that rank may follow:
Be consistently excellent all the time
It’s tempting to ask yourself who cares and who’s watching. The answer is you do and you never know. Whether you get recognized or not, being true to your best version of yourself and the high calling of public service creates habits of performance that will serve you well. An attitude of high performance only when there is an audience, only when you’re in the mood, or only when a call is particularly interesting will create a habit of sporadic performance and lack of dependability.
That doesn’t always mean pushing your own ideas. If you’re passionate about a program idea for improvement, don’t automatically expect support and encouragement. A more diplomatic approach is to participate fully in initiatives being promoted by existing leadership. Watch how those efforts unfold, how subordinates adapt and how leadership navigates the change. If you’re going to learn from failure or success, let it be someone else’s first.
Focus on others
Calculate the balance between self-preservation and self-promotion, but the purest leadership is serving others. As a practical matter, the person you ignore or use today might be in a position to help or hinder you in the future. Sometimes leadership is pulling others up, lifting others up, or walking next to them. If you want to play the chess game of manipulating others to your advantage you may achieve positional success, but you’ll never achieve respect.
Cultivate the present
It’s tempting to want to jump through the hoops and check off the boxes to promotion. If you get a detective assignment on the way to your dream job of being a patrol sergeant, make the most of it even if investigations is not your passion. There is no knowledge lost in police work, so learn all you can in whatever assignment you get.
Be your own best coach
There may be a time when you are offered an assignment or position that you feel you are not ready for. There is likely more career peril in turning down an opportunity than there is in finding you don’t like it or aren’t good at it. There are more people who don’t care or who don’t want you to succeed than are cheerleaders, so be your own best encourager and find others to cheer you on.
Frequently engage in reflection
The five points already offered can help you measure your attitude toward your career and advancement. Even if you disagree with the suggestions it can be a starting point for discussion with yourself and trusted peers. Keep your self-talk positive, avoiding rumination on the opinions of others or your perceived shortcomings. Constant criticism of the man in the mirror is not productive; honest self-evaluation is.
The truth is that honest hard work and self-improvement is not just the path to positional success – it is the path to true leadership regardless of your rank.
Career development resources for law enforcement leaders:
- 4 tips for cops who were passed over for a promotion
- What it takes to be a great leader
- How to be an effective police leader before, during and after the call
- Why leadership in law enforcement is not about rank
- 10 leadership lessons for LE from the military
- They call you a leader, but is anyone following you?