21 steps to becoming a better SWAT team leader

Your self-improvement efforts should not start when you take a formal leadership position on SWAT – your efforts should start even before you make the team


By Quinn Cunningham, P1 Contributor

Leadership is about establishing rapport and developing respect to build relationships. Strong relationships create trust up and down the chain of command. Building relationships to effectively lead a SWAT team can be difficult and arduous because of the type of individuals SWAT attracts. However, building relationships to effectively lead a SWAT team can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have because of the type of individuals SWAT attracts.

Leadership characteristics can be placed into two categories: inward focusing and outward focusing. One of the United States Marine Corps’ leadership principles is “Know yourself and seek improvement.” When looking inward, be candid and critical of yourself. Honestly and without bias assess your strengths and weaknesses. When projecting your outward influences, the focus is on building relationships with those we serve. 

A Sebring, Fla., police officer stands near a Highlands County Sheriff's SWAT vehicle that is stationed in front of a SunTrust Bank branch, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Sebring, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
A Sebring, Fla., police officer stands near a Highlands County Sheriff's SWAT vehicle that is stationed in front of a SunTrust Bank branch, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Sebring, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Your self-improvement efforts should not start when you take a formal leadership position on SWAT. Your efforts should start even before you make the team. In my graduation speech to academy cadets, I talk about the four tactical virtues outlined in “The Way of Men” by Jack Donovan. He explains that when warriors are lined up for battle, these virtues are what you want the people to your left and right to possess:

1. Strength: This virtue does not just refer to raw strength, it refers to all things relating to physical fitness. Your physical fitness is the foundation to your mindset and should be measured by the sweat angels on the floor and the taste of iron in your mouth.

2. Courage: You must have the mental quality that recognizes fear of danger but enables a member to proceed in the face of danger with calmness and firmness.

3. Mastery: Understanding, judgment, wisdom, knowledge and technical proficiency are essential to be a well-rounded operator. You must also master technology, strategy and tactics. Strive to master all you survey.

4. Honor: Demonstrate integrity and loyalty and hold the needs of the team higher than your own. You must have a positive reputation and actively further the reputation of the team.

Refining your tactical virtues will give you a lot of capital, earning respect from those above and below you in the chain of command. There are a few other inward-facing traits you can work on to effectively lead:

5. Humility: Humble people work to better themselves even when things are going well. Setting your ego aside allows you to be open to other people’s ideas or methods that may be better than yours. A massive ego can negatively affect training and operations by thinking you are too good to put in the reps in training or not giving a suspect the respect they deserve.

6. Discipline: This is a big one. I view discipline as maintaining and demonstrating self-control in all things in your life. Discipline means setting an example. It means being the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. Discipline is surgical precision in the little things because when the little things are perfect, the big things seem to just fall into place. It means your uniform and weapons are meticulously cared for. It means your reports and administrative duties are completed to perfection. It means even the most menial tasks are completed with laser focus.

Additionally, I have seen discipline keep people out of trouble. Imagine two contrasting officers. Officer 1 has a clean and pressed uniform with polished boots. His patrol car is cared for and his reports are professionally completed. Officer 2 is on the opposite end of the spectrum – his uniform appears slovenly, there is dried lettuce in his mag pouches, his patrol car is dirty, and his paperwork is atrocious. Both have an unintentional discharge on the range. Since past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, command staff will probably give Officer 1 counseling or a written reprimand. The conversation regarding Officer 2 will be different. Command staff will take note of his appearance and his paperwork. They will also consider the care and use of his issued equipment. Officer 2 will likely receive greater punishment.

Now place this in a SWAT context. Your team’s uniforms and equipment are squared away. Your vehicles are clean, orderly and mission ready. Discipline and adherence to those little things will develop trust up the chain of command. As Lt. Command (ret) Jocko Willink says, “Discipline equals freedom.”

7. Assertiveness: Effectively expressing yourself and standing up for your point of view shows you have confidence and respect yourself. Being assertive also demonstrates you respect the beliefs and interests of others.

Next let’s discuss outward-facing leadership traits. These are the things you do that directly affect those around you.

8. Decisiveness: You should be able to make prompt, appropriate decisions under non-stressful environments as well as tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations. General Patton said, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Avoid "paralysis by analysis" and prioritize and execute on decisions.

9. Communication: The less you talk, the more you will be heard. Listen intently, speak purposefully. Communication should be clear, concise and direct. There should be no ambiguity. I’m sure those reading have heard the phrase, “Don’t let him leave the perimeter” uttered over the radio. The usual response to that, which is not aired on the radio, is, “What the (expletive removed) does that mean?”

10. Tact: You must be able to speak and communicate to those up and down the chain of command without pissing them off. Just like dealing with your spouse, it’s not what you say, its how you say it.  

11. Enthusiasm:  I find that enthusiasm is very contagious. The more excited you are, even if you must fake it, the more excited your subordinates will be.

12. Pride: People want to take pride in things that are close to them. They also take pride in their own personal achievements. Give the members something to take ownership in – whether it is vehicle assignments, the less lethal program, or the armorer for the team. This has two benefits. First, they will surprise you with what they can accomplish. Second, the Devil finds work in idle hands. Highly driven individuals need to focus their energy.   

13. Competition: Healthy competition can do a lot for team unity and success. Most SWAT members are already competitive, and they want to know how they perform against others. Competition serves not only to humble some, but it can also create drive. Competition will motivate people to train more in their own time.     

14. Branding: As silly as it may seem, you must promote your brand. The commander should promote the team and create a positive “brand” image. The squad leaders should promote the team and their squads, which creates healthy competition between the squads. The fire team leader should promote their fire team “brand,” squad and team while creating competition between the fire teams.        

15. Boundaries: Machiavelli said, "It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” Although this quote has a negative connotation, this tactic is very powerful with new operators. This is especially true with larger agencies where you may not know or have developed a relationship with the new members. They must be treated sternly and professionally. I am stoic with them until they have earned my respect and gained my trust based on their performance and attitude. 

16. Tempo: Training should be engaging and structured, yet difficult. There should be little to no downtime and lesson plans should have a fast pace that runs people into the ground. An aggressive tempo is beneficial for several reasons. It sets the tone for the new operators and it makes us better. When the team asks for more training, it will be easier to justify because the team has a reputation of no slack. This also helps to focus energy for those “idle hands.”

17. Team integrity: Maintaining your team integrity has several components. First, we must train as a team, not individuals. The squads and fire teams will intermix on operations but maintaining your team integrity in training has several benefits beyond team building. Operators learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as their mannerisms and cues. Performing immediate action drills and other standard operating procedures will require less communication and thought on real calls. Schedule time to train with your subordinates at the squad, fire team and even on individual levels. Going to the range or gym together creates a bond. Team integrity should also reach into off-duty time. Get to know your team members and their families.    

18. Praise: Napoleon Bonaparte said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Praise should be deserved and not handed out arbitrarily. If it is deserved, your praise will carry more weight. When appropriate deliver praise in public.

19. Appraisals: Provide honest, constructive feedback on performance in the form of 360-degree evaluations. An honest assessment from those you serve, your peers and your leadership will help you be a more effective leader and follower. If you are scared about what your subordinates will say, then you are doing something wrong. Set your ego aside because leadership is not about you, it’s about your service to them.

20. Mission before ego: You are not above any task or objective. Whatever that task entails, you must complete it with extreme attention to detail and perfection. If filling coolers with ice for the team is your objective, complete it with the utmost enthusiasm and excellence.

21. Balance: These traits all require balance, as without balance, all of them can turn from positive to negative traits. Pride can be good and bad, competition can be good and bad, even communication can be good and bad. As leaders and subordinates, you must constantly assess where you and your team are at and adjust accordingly. Your team will be at its best when balanced.

Some of these items I have discussed are atypical of the normal law enforcement leadership principles. This is because effective leaders try different tactics and techniques. Bruce Lee said, “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” Find what works for you and those you serve. This is done through success and failure. Learn from your failures and turn those failures into successes.

How to lead LE out of crisis

The law enforcement profession is in crisis. Although some of our challenges are from outside influences, some of our industry’s issues can be directly related to leadership. Leadership is nebulous and there are no set rules as to how to develop leader/follower relationships in every situation. Therefore, leadership is difficult, and to most in our profession, an inconvenience. That is why leadership is so fascinating.

A good servant leader builds trust and relationships that motivate their subordinates to complete the law enforcement mission of their own volition. Some feel there is a leadership void in our industry, however, we are responsible for this void and only we can mend it. Leadership can fix almost any problem our teams, organizations and industry faces.


About the author
Quinn Cunningham is a deputy with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado. He has been in law enforcement for 23 years and a member of the SWAT Team since 2000 and currently assigned as the academy director. He is a member of the Colorado P.O.S.T. Firearms Subject Matter Expert Committee, an instructor for FASTER Colorado, the owner of Fortitude Training Concepts LLC and a sponsored shooter for Shadow Systems.

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