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A crisis of leadership: How to create great leaders

A common thread I’ve seen throughout my law enforcement experience is an occasional and costly crisis of leadership. What do I mean by “leadership,” and how does it differ from management? It’s simple: leadership is people oriented while management is organization oriented. Leadership is tactical, while Management is strategic. Leadership is often measured in seconds, while management usually allows slow deliberation. Leadership is an individual skill, while management is often a team sport.

There are many short courses and weeks-long programs that purport to train law enforcement leadership. In actuality, almost all of these courses are management training. Most will discuss desirable leadership traits, and even give some examples from a list of great military or police leaders. In the end, police leadership training, as a sergeant or officer in the military might understand leadership training, is virtually non-existent.

My definition of a great police leader is someone who can coordinate the chaotic one-at-a-time arrival of several individual police officers responding to an emergency call. That leader will quickly pull together an effective, cohesive team to move into a critical incident scene to effect resolution of the problem. Since the Columbine incident, most agencies have trained their officers in Rapid Deployment/Active Shooter Response tactics. How many of those agencies have taken the next step and trained senior officers/sergeants/lieutenants to assemble and lead those teams?

Participants in the Street Leadership Course presented by Illinois State Police Academy (ISPA) survey a scenario unfolding on the BowMac training table.
Participants in the Street Leadership Course presented by Illinois State Police Academy (ISPA) survey a scenario unfolding on the BowMac training table.

Even though the law enforcement profession is not very good at delivering formal leadership training, we frequently see examples of police leaders effectively taking charge in desperate incidents. So, where do these leaders learn to do what they do? First, I believe God produces a few natural leaders who regularly turn chaos into success. Many police leadership examples were trained by the U.S. military as commissioned or non-commissioned officers. Finally, some fine police leaders are simply quick studies, learning to mimic great leadership traits they see in their elders in the profession.

Every new non-commissioned officer or commissioned officer in all military branches will attend a basic leadership school as they promote into their position. These initial leadership schools are primary focused on “leading troops into combat.” Certainly, there is some management training delivered in military leadership courses, but focused management schools will come later in their careers. First, these military leaders learn the battleground tactics of their specialty and the need to lead from the front. They are also imbued with the necessity of taking care of their people.

There is a great scene in the movie “We Were Soldiers,” that illustrates the differing talents needed for street-level leadership. The Lieutenant Colonel (Mel Gibson) and Sergeant Major (Sam Elliott) are observing two young infantry lieutenants as they lead their platoons in training. One lieutenant is operating in Drill Sergeant mode, barking out direct orders. The other lieutenant is in “Servant Leader” mode as he orders a stop and has every soldier remove their boots and socks and check each other’s feet. An effective leader understands the need for both of these leadership styles, depending on the circumstance.

For the last 10 years, I’ve been in the business of training officers to take charge of critical incidents. As a part of that process, we critically analyze police performance in all types of critical incidents. When an incident goes bad in the first few minutes, the cause is generally a vacuum of leadership. The on-scene officers eventually get the job done, but there is generally a great deal of room for improvement. On the flip side, when an incident goes well, it is usually because an effective leader was present.

We’ve all been to a panic-ridden call where several officers quickly arrive, possibly from multiple agencies, and each one concentrates on the particular task they think most important. That hit and miss technique can eventually work, but by merely adding one “drill sergeant” to develop a quick plan and assign each officer a prioritized task, the effectiveness of the team multiplies dramatically. If the event is life threatening, a vacuum of leadership can costs lives.

The fact that lives are at risk if we fail at handling a critical incident makes the police mission more like a military operation than a private industry business enterprise. Private industry exists to make a profit and only very rarely faces the need to make instant decisions on life-threatening matters. Law enforcement agencies exist to protect the public and investigate crimes and are frequently called upon to make life or death decisions.

A failure in private industry is generally limited to the loss of money. A failure at a police emergency can cost the lives of innocent citizens and the police responders. While we can learn some useful management techniques from private industry, our missions are very different.

Between the end of the Viet Nam war era (1973, more or less) and September 11, 2001, we hired a generation of police officers who had steadily declining levels of military experience (and attendant leadership training). Now, almost nine years after the beginning of the Global War on Terror, we see the percentage of veterans in a cadet class steadily growing.

Many senior police commanders now in charge entered the profession during the time frame I outlined above, and have received no true leadership training in their careers, through no fault of their own. But, those commanders have almost certainly attended several police management courses.

In my opinion, this deficiency of leadership training explains SWAT commanders being tied up on cell phones discussing an unfolding emergency situation with a commander in the “rear” when they should be freed up to make tactical … leadership … decisions for their team. If all you’ve been taught is how to manage a problem, then as a senior commander you may try to manage a critical incident by cell phone from the other side of the city (or the other side of the state). The SWAT team leader doesn’t have time for a meeting right now, which defines the essence of leadership … time.

These same senior commanders probably do an excellent job running the day-to-day operations of their agency. Life or death incidents amount to less than one percent of what most agencies do, but the public rightly expects us to get the bad ones right. A parent, terrified for their child in a school attack, couldn’t care less about a cost-saving fleet plan someone developed for your agency.

When they need to address an agency’s pursuit policy, a manager can look at the policies developed by other agencies, consult with their street officers/leaders and develop an SOP best suited to their particular needs. That process may take months. But, when dispatch sends their officers to a report of an active shooter in a middle school, a commander who understands the difference between leadership and management will realize their job is to take charge of the “outside” aspects of the school attack. From their own street leader days, a senior commander schooled in leadership principles will remember how the leader of the Contact Team must be left alone to concentrate on the deadly, blood-soaked scene the team is entering. Tactical decisions must be left to tactical leaders who have their eyes on the problem.

Last January, PoliceOne Senior Editor Doug Wyllie revieweda true leadership course I developed in partnership with BowMac Educational Services. I strongly believe we must institutionalize true, hands-on leadership training in the police profession. If a senior commander learns to be an effective leader before they are schooled in management techniques, they are more likely to trust their field leaders and empower them to deal with the all-important first few minutes of critical incidents.

I doubt there are many among you who are not familiar with LTC Dave Grossman’s sheepdog analogy to police officers and their mission to place themselves between the flock and the wolves. By teaching our street leaders how to coordinate the actions of a team of sheepdogs, our senior commanders will better understand their role ... as the Shepherd.

“It is better to have an army of lambs led by a lion, than an army of lions led by a lamb.”
— attributed to Alexander the Great

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