Lessons in Leadership: How real police leaders empower teams

When team members are invested in their roles and contributions, you have the highest probability for a successful outcome


Policing has historically been a job; today it is recognized as a genuine profession. Today’s police force is comprised of highly trained, exceptionally smart individuals who possess specialized knowledge and skills. Whether it’s a police chief overseeing a department or a patrol officer responding to 9-1-1 calls, law enforcement leaders exist in all ranks of our profession.

Lessons in Leadership is a 10-part series covering the most important principles I learned during my nearly 30-year career with the Dallas Police Department. From explosive confrontations to quiet defining moments, there’s no shortage of wisdom to be earned in one of the world’s most dangerous professions.

I’ve worked with many great leaders during my 30+ years in law enforcement, but Dallas Police Chief David Brown always stands out in my mind as one of the best. He taught me some of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about leadership and teamwork in the high-stakes world of law enforcement.

I’ve worked with many great leaders during my 30+ years in law enforcement, but Dallas Police Chief David Brown always stands out in my mind as one of the best. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)
I’ve worked with many great leaders during my 30+ years in law enforcement, but Dallas Police Chief David Brown always stands out in my mind as one of the best. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

I first met David in the mid-1990s when we were both in SWAT. I was an operator and he was a sergeant. Although we were on different squads, he often asked me to fill in if he was a man short for a mission. As a FNG, it was a badge of honor to be asked to roll out with his team. The more I worked with him, the more I admired him. He would stay late at the shooting range picking up brass and trash with his squad, even when other members of the division had already left. Little things like that spoke volumes about him. I never knew he would become the police chief one day.

Great leaders empower teams with a sense of ownership

I was still relatively new to SWAT, with about two years under my belt, when we had a bank robbery in southern Dallas. A man and two women had held up a teller at gunpoint, fled the scene and were pursued by police to a nearby neighborhood. The women surrendered immediately, but the male suspect fired numerous rounds at the officers before taking off on foot. This presented a grave danger in a residential area full of families. The entire SWAT team was called in to begin a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.

When I arrived, David asked me to join his squad for a search of four houses. I was the new guy with a team full of salty veterans. But none of them treated me like a wet-behind-the-ears rookie. I knew David had observed me in training evolutions and appreciated his confidence in my abilities. After the first three houses came up empty, we entered the fourth and final house. I found myself standing at the top of a staircase leading down to the basement. The homeowner claimed she had heard the suspect moving around down there.

I felt a hand squeeze my shoulder and turned to see David standing behind me.  He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Rich, you know what this guy’s done today. He shot at two officers and has no regard for our safety or the safety of anyone in this neighborhood. When you get down in that basement, you do what you’ve got to do and I’ll have your back.”

He could easily have grabbed any of the six SWAT veterans nearby to be the point man and go down first, but he didn’t hesitate to ask me. He could have asked, “Rich, are you up for doing this?” But he never questioned me. There was an implied trust. To this day, I can’t convey how much that experience meant to me. By placing his trust, faith and confidence in me, David did the most important thing that leaders will ever do – he gave me something to live up to. He instilled a sense of ownership in me for the actions I was about to take and, in doing so, empowered me to become a better police officer. That’s the best blessing you can get from a commander.

When I descended the stairs with David following behind, I felt empowered. Moments like this give officers the freedom and encouragement to rise to their full potential. I fully owned my part in this mission. When team members are invested in their roles and contributions, you have the highest probability for a successful outcome.

There’s a flip side to this too; with ownership comes accountability to your leadership, each other and the team as a whole. That’s why it’s so important that every member of your team has a common sense of purpose and shares the mindset of, when we go in, we all go in together.

Given the life-and-death nature of our work, this isn’t meant to be a gratuitous game of trial and error. New or inexperienced officers should never be placed into roles for which they’re unprepared simply to build their confidence. Knowing the capabilities of their team members, great leaders seize opportunities to lift each person up when the moment is right.

Some leaders impede this process because they have a hard time letting go, whether it’s the controlling personalities who prefer to dictate every detail, or ego-driven individuals who impose their rule with an iron fist. That isn’t leadership; it is micro-management or insecurity. True leaders empower their teams to participate, innovate and get the job done. They have confidence in others because first and foremost, they have confidence in themselves. David trusted me because he trusted himself, his judgment and his decision-making.

Don’t hijack your team’s opportunity to provide solutions

Great leaders also have the ability to observe and realize that their troops are well-trained and can be trusted to provide solutions. Ineffective leaders don’t know how to delegate. They always think they’re the smartest guys in the room and are never open to out-of-the-box ideas proposed by other guys in the unit.

Costly leadership mistakes often manifest themselves when leaders are unwilling to listen to the boots-on-the-ground types. I’ve been in briefings where SWAT supervisors never took a breath long enough for any of the operators to chime in. The supervisors were producing, directing and starring in the show all by themselves. This is a disservice to everyone involved and the mission. Tactical planning is the responsibility of the team leaders. They delegate parts of the process to their specialists and collectively prepare the briefing so nothing gets overlooked. There’s a reason why we have specialized training for breachers, snipers, assaulters, negotiators and others who are placed on the team to execute particular tasks. Once leaders identify the problem, they should turn it over to the team. Don’t hijack your team’s opportunity to provide solutions.

Make everything a learning opportunity

Leaders owe it to their teams to make every operation a learning opportunity. It’s critical to debrief as soon as possible after a call when all the details are fresh in everyone’s mind. I call it “going around the horn.” In their own words, team members must explain their specific roles, what they did right, what they did wrong, and how they will fix mistakes or improve in the future. That’s the contract. It can be a major mistake or a minor mistake, but the important thing is to be brutally honest. I’ve heard everything from, “I didn’t have a round chambered in my rifle,” to “Sorry, I zigged when I should have zagged and messed up the whole train of troops behind me.”

Everyone should be able to come up with at least one thing they either did wrong or could improve upon. The perfect warrant has never been executed and the perfect police officer doesn’t exist. But we should strive toward those ideals, and great leaders will empower their troops to achieve things they never dreamed possible. 

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