Applying the internal customer and servant leadership concepts in law enforcement

Police agencies should take advantage of the millions of dollars private business spend to identify best practices for leading and motivating employees


Law enforcement is generally behind the business world in embracing new leadership practices. This is due in part to the belief cops have that law enforcement is so inherently different from any other profession that only cops know how to “police” our own. But private businesses spend millions of dollars in research and training to identify best practices for leading and motivating employees. It doesn’t make sense to ignore their findings.

I’ve studied and experimented with the concepts of the internal customer and the servant leader for several years now and have seen favorable results. I believe these concepts can be adapted to work in law enforcement agencies.  

The Internal Customer

A culture of servant leadership helps others in the organization to grow. (Photo/Pixabay)
A culture of servant leadership helps others in the organization to grow. (Photo/Pixabay)

Businesses live and die by customer satisfaction. At some point, the private business community realized their internal customers drive the satisfaction of their external customers.

Internal customers are any employee who is provided goods and services from within their organization. These goods and services are, of course, provided by other members of their organization. In private business, a good example is the human resources department or information technology. In law enforcement agencies, those customers (sworn officers) are also served by support personnel such as the records divisions or dispatch. I would submit that this concept can also apply to upper law enforcement leadership.

Internationally renowned leadership expert and motivation speaker Stephen Covey said, “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.” I would add, “Because they will.” We see it repeatedly in law enforcement. Cops who are treated with respect “at home” are more likely to treat the public with that same respect in the field.

The Servant Leader

Management researcher Robert Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” in a paper he published in 1970.

The concept behind servant leadership is that a leader should be more service oriented than power driven. That culture helps others in the organization to grow their aptitude in the area of service.

In Leadership by the Book: Tools to Transform Your Workplace author Ken Blanchard states, “…the minute you think you work for the person above you in the hierarchy…you’re assuming that person – your boss – is responsible and your job is to be responsive to his or her whims and wishes. As a result, all the energy in the organization moves up the hierarchy and away from the customers…” That might be a big pill to swallow for us, but it’s hard to argue against the idea. Energy and employee engagement are finite resources. How much of those resources are wasted trying to please the administration rather than serve the public?   

leadership concepts In Practice

Don’t you hate it when articles talk about how things are wrong yet don’t offer solutions? Here are three examples of the small things we can do as administrators to change our culture and ourselves for the better.

1. Explain your decisions

Let’s say an officer comes to his leadership with an idea to follow up on domestic violence calls to enhance the investigation and subsequent prosecution of offenders. It would require him working overtime to accomplish. Although it would be a great thing to do in the officer’s mind, he is told, “No,” or worse yet, receives no response at all. How would that affect that officer’s motivation to give more than the minimum mandatory effort in the future?

Now what if the officer was told he had a great idea, but it cannot be implemented at present since the overtime budget is already strained and the financial resources just aren’t there for a proactive program like the one proposed. Isn’t that less likely to have a negative long-term affect on the officer’s future proactivity?

Do you recall a time when you went to your boss with an issue and were dismissed out of hand? Did that exchange or lack thereof adversely affect your personal motivation? Probably. Take a minute and listen.

2. Educate yourself

The most effective leaders are perpetual students of the craft. Attending leadership training can be costly and require time away from our duties. However, there are hundreds of books on the topic. There is no excuse for lack of knowledge. I recommend you start with “The Little Book on Coaching: Motivating People to be Winners” by Ken Blanchard and Don Shula. It’s a short read that creates a solid foundation for a leader. I buy one for all my first-line supervisors and it has proven to be an inexpensive, yet engaging tool for them.

3. Review your techniques

Another of my favorite references on the topic of people management is “Love ’Em or Lose ’Em: Getting Good People to Stay” by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan Evans. It’s a great book, but the title says it all. As the public opinion pendulum swings against us more vigorously than ever, good applicants are hard to recruit, and good officers are hard to keep. This is the time to review and revise our management techniques. Would your department benefit from the culture change required to adopt the two principles of the internal customer and servant leadership? Consider how you can put forth a little extra effort to make these concepts work at your agency.   

What mainstream leadership techniques have improved your police leadership skills? Share your success stories in the comment box below.

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