Small unit leadership

This is not about leadership in a wider organization sense, but leadership down in the weeds. We will be looking at the kind of leadership necessary for employees involved in highly complex problem-solving tasks (tactical situations to interpersonal communication skills). The primary focus is for those leaders practicing their trade with street cops, small vice or narcotic units, or tactical teams.

Our first step will be to work out a definition of leadership. As we progress through this series of articles we will explore how leadership skills can be gained, honed and applied.

Nearly every promotional interview panel asks some type of leadership questions. Indeed, they often simply ask the interviewee to define leadership. Ask someone. They will probably work backwards and use the words lead and leader to define leadership. But, a working definition of the word is critical before we can apply the concepts to small units.

For our purposes leadership is defined as “The art of influencing human behavior toward organizational goals.” Leadership is an art. But, like all art it has its underpinnings in science. Think of a painter. Inside of the painter’s mind the picture is waiting to be expressed. But, the painter must know the science – which brush strokes will attain a certain effect, which colors blend to create the desired color, how is depth obtained, and so on. The art is the interpretative application of the science. For leadership there are a variety of model and theories with which the leader can draw upon. But, to practice his or her art, the leader must know the science.

Influencing best describes the all encompassing behaviors a leader might use. For instance, during a tactical situation wherein the leader behavior is likely to be highly directive, the leader influences by giving orders. At other times, when employees are involved in completing tasks outside the direct observations of the leader, influence may come in the form of prior training, counseling or direction. Our point is that to influence the leader does not need to be present during the completion of the task.

Leadership is about human behavior. For small unit leaders there are two underlying concepts about human beings. First, you can not always predict what a human being is going to do. Certainly, you can make accurate generalizations. But, you cannot know with any degree of certainty how every human will react or act. There are too many variables, too many unknowns. Second, you cannot change people. That’s a newsflash to many! After a certain age (and anyone in our small units has certainly passed the age), people do not change.

Now, their may be a pilot light inside of them waiting for a spark. But, if there is no gas running to the pilot light all the fire in the world is useless. A leader must accept that all they can do is modify a human being’s behavior. The key concept is that the leadership task is about working with and influencing human behavior.

In small units, leadership is not about attainment, it is about movement. This is a key concept and the reason the word “toward” appears in our definition. Strategic goals, unit goals, unit membership and the environment are constantly changing. Leadership is a full-time, continuous occupation. Its about preparing for the next tactical incident, inculcating the newest member, attaining the latest measurable goal. It is constant, moving, fluid and dynamic. It is toward.

Your small unit was created by the organization to accomplish some goal. It is critical for the leader to remain focused on the organizational goals, not the leader’s goals. Too many small units pursue the leader’s goals and not the organizational goals. A great leader is always focused on the organizational goals. Some are asking – but what about competing concerns.

So, leadership is the art of influencing human behavior toward organizational goals.

Before you rattle off about “being a company man,” re-read the definition and the explanations. Human beings are in the center of our definition. There is no organize without the people who need it or the people who comprise it. Our central theme throughout this series is going to be - how does the leader balance the needs of the follower, the organization and in policing, the community?

About the author

Lt. Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA is the author of Police Technology (Prentice Hall); the co-author of Leadership: Texas Hold 'em Style (Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press); and From NYPD to LAPD: An Introduction to Policing (Prentice Hall).

Raymond's current major project is co-authoring the upcoming book, "Homeland Security and the New Threats of Global Terrorism: From Cold War to Flaming-Hot War (Prentice Hall, February 2007)" with Major General Dror Itzhaki, Israeli Security Agency (ret), a senior Israeli expert on security, protection, operations and prevention of criminal and terror acts and Dr. Reuven Paz, Ph.D., an Israeli expert on militant and radical Islam and Islamist movements. Additionally, his is in contract negotiations on a third book - An Introduction to Policing. You can view Lieutenant Foster's Complete CV Here.

Raymond can be reached on the Criminal Justice Forum or at

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Command Staff - Chiefs / Sheriffs

Sponsored by

logo for print