6 key traits of investigative thought leaders

Are these qualities you already possess — thus making you an innovative investigator — or are they qualities you might add to your set of skills to improve your ability to lead your investigations?


It has long been thought that in order to lead others in law enforcement, one must attain rank or be a supervisor. Nothing is further from the truth. Each police officer has the opportunity to be a leader. Officers are well trained, charged with great responsibility, held to the highest expectations, and are accountable to their employer and the community they serve. Police officers and investigators are given major objectives to reach every day and few would be as successful as they are without the capacity to lead.

Thought leaders are the go-to people in their field of expertise, responsible for inspiring others with their innovative ideas. They possess some unique leadership qualities which set them apart as innovators, and in the field of criminal investigations, innovation is precisely what is needed to continually meet the challenges and changing demands of the profession. 

Below are six qualities of an investigative thought leader. Are they qualities you already possess — thus making you an innovative investigator — or are they qualities you might add to your set of skills to improve your ability to lead your investigations?

1. Confidence
A thought leader is confident. He or she understands the value of their extensive training and that their respective police department, the courts, and the community consider them a foremost expert in the field of policing and criminal investigations. 

They are trusted with the awesome responsibility of community safety and seeking justice for those who’ve been victimized. 

This confidence demonstrates to one’s supervisors and colleagues that the investigation is in knowing and capable hands. Not only will no stone be left unturned, but the pebbles beneath the stones will also be carefully scrutinized! 

2. Innovation
Of all the qualities of a thought leader, innovation is unquestionably the most notable and impactful. All police officers and investigators strive to work their cases hard, capture the responsible parties and see their cases through to a successful prosecution. Investigative thought leaders take “striving” to a whole new level. Consider the investigator who, while investigating a violent crime, found a single leaf from a Holly tree in the trunk of a suspect’s vehicle. 

Rather than merely dismiss the leaf as common yard debris, he inquired about “plant DNA” to see if that leaf could be matched to a particular tree. This placed the suspect vehicle at the scene of the crime. The investigator clearly had the tenacity to consider any and all possibilities in that case.

Innovation is the driver of successful case clearances and that which continues to push investigative tradecraft into new, exciting, and unchartered territory. 

3. Accountability
The confidence of a thought leader permits an understanding of and comfort with accountability. It is presumed and understood that the buck starts and stops with you — the primary or “lead” investigator.

Thought leaders possess such a drive to succeed that they hold themselves accountable first and foremost. Investigative thought leaders also understand and embrace the other, and equally important, levels of accountability; to the victims and/or their families, their colleagues, their supervisors, employer and the community. 

4. Ability to Embrace Failure
Not all investigative thought leaders have all the answers and not all innovative thoughts will lead to a break in a case. Skilled leaders embrace failure as a means to an end. Leaders understand that they may have to pass failure a few times on their way to success. 

This is the nature of criminal investigations. Not everything will work every time but having the resiliency to fail, learn from failure and the tenacity to continue to seek that which does work are qualities unique to leaders generally and investigative thought leaders in particular. 

5. Knowledge of Strengths and Weaknesses
Leaders also know their strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, they know the strengths and weaknesses of their colleagues and either pair them accordingly or apply them in the most beneficial way. 

Investigative thought leaders capitalize on the strengths and resources within their grasp. As innovators, they know what they don’t know, and are experts on becoming experts. In other words, they make every effort to explore where to find the answers or resources needed when lacking them. They grasp that the values of listening, promoting dialogue and respecting the wisdom of experience. 

6. Capacity to Inspire and Motivate Others
Excellence and success are contagious. Through consistently good communication with victims, witnesses, colleagues and the chain of command, a thought leader engages others in their vision of a successful case outcome. This promotes a sense of “buy-in” from the people involved and invests them in the interest of seeing the investigator’s vision fulfilled.  

By inspiring and motivating others, investigative thought leaders help to develop the investigative skills of officers and investigators junior to them. Being forward-looking and developing excellence in one’s colleagues ensures succession planning, the future success of the squad, unit, police department and ultimately, the safety of the community.

The nature of crime fighting is always changing. Just as police develop a new approach to fight crime, criminals seem just as eager to develop new methods to commit it. It is for this reason that the police profession needs investigative thought leaders. 

In order to meet these challenges — and those yet to emerge — police investigators must be vigilant and strategic in their pursuit of justice. By developing and supporting the leadership of each officer and investigator, and by encouraging the pursuit of innovative approaches and new dialogue in criminal investigations, victims of crimes, their families, police supervisors, police departments, and the community can rest assured that case clearances and other great achievements will follow. 

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