Most new sergeants attend a basic supervisor class, but I’ve never seen a “how to be a good sergeant” course. If you’re lucky, some of the old guard might be willing to share hard-earned wisdom. But if not, and you’re interested in one day becoming a sergeant, this article is for you.
I think I was a pretty good student of our profession. I paid attention to how good leaders led and how bad leaders did not. After chief or sheriff, no rank reveals more of both than sergeant. Sergeants play the biggest role in the on-duty lives of cops. The crucial link between management’s decisions and what actually happens on the streets, it’s the make-or-break rank. Chiefs and sheriffs either keep their jobs or lose them because of sergeants.
I did nine years on patrol and then four years as a detective, so I had plenty of time as direct consumer of sergeanting. I had some great ones who I’d run through brick walls for, and a couple others who probably should have been fired. Then for eight years I wore sergeant stripes with honor, leading several productive and fun teams.
Humble leaders draw people in and grow a willingness for understanding, cooperation and teamwork.
For the last decade of my career, I was one of a select few managers who formally trained new sergeants. I trained dozens of them, including three who would go on to become my sheriffs. I had the freedom to design the training how I wanted. After the first few sessions, themes emerged, so I made a list to guide me. I kept polishing it until I had these 16 points. Follow this guide and I promise that your work life and that of your troops will go much better.
- Put the department’s interest first. The idea here is, always check your motivations. You’re a trusted leader in a transactional job. You receive pay for agreed-upon deliverables. Are you in pursuit of your department’s mission and vision, or are you pursuing your own?
- Have high expectations right out of the gate, and it will become widely known. Until it becomes second nature, new sergeants need to role-play. That should include playing it by the book and being detail-oriented. Beat cops are looking to train new sergeants, too. For example, you’ll be tested with crime reports that are intentionally thin. If you start signing those off, that’ll quickly become your known standard. It’s much harder to turn up the expectations than to throttle them back.
- Doing the right thing can make you feel lonely sometimes — accept it. Too many sergeants are in a popularity contest that can be won by a willingness to cut corners, bury righteous complaints and let things slide. This rank has the least oversight and most freedom, so you can make the job an easy one if you like. One way is by letting others slack off, too. Shoot for having the top 20% in your department respect you and want to come work for you.
- Implement tactics for treating all deputies equally. Sergeanting is highly relational. You’ll have some cops who you’re just not going to mesh with. You may also have some quiet introverts who are easy to overlook. These cops need as much one-on-one time as the guys and gals you’d rather be around. Our work is too much like high school already. Make sure you show up at everyone’s calls equally. The same goes for coffee breaks. Don’t just hang out with the cool kids.
- Through encouragement and support, create an environment where deputies feel safe and honored and they will naturally produce for you. A healthy environment is your goal. For starters here, the number one thing is to aim for consistency. Cops can handle bossy sergeants. They can handle meek ones, too. If your troops don’t know what to expect from you, you’ll kill their environment. Also, start these two habits: daily, give positive feedback out in the open, and then guide, correct or discipline privately. Look for overt ways to model the best work ethic and attitude to your team. Never miss an opportunity to stand up for your team. By the way, this is the “head” side of the coin.
- Represent management, authentically. Now, the “tail” side. One way or another, too many sergeants get this one wrong. Some sergeants willingly undermine management’s directives, and some sergeants simply parrot edicts as if they always believe in all of it. Cops easily spot both, and neither merits respect. If you have difficulty swallowing something that comes down from the mount, have the nerve to speak up. If it doesn’t go your way, implement. But when your troops ask if you agree with the directive, they already know that you don’t, so don’t lie. But don’t purge, either. Say something like, “That’s not what’s important here. The directive is lawful, it’s within policy, it’s ethical and it’s management’s wishes. We’ll do a good job implementing it.” Your troops will get it, you’ll retain their respect and the organization will function the way it’s supposed to.
- Be cautious about transactional relationships with subordinates. For the first time in their careers, sergeants can broker a lot of deals with staff. That’s not a bad thing. Since you have the biggest influence on their contentment, it’s natural for some officers to resort to sycophancy (“ass-kissing”) and more in order to get what they want. Too many departments breed that culture from the top. If yours does, break that cycle. Do reward good behavior, but don’t get in the habit of conditional trades for personal benefit.
- Don’t break policy; bend the situation to make it work. Except for significant, imminent situations of public or officer safety, don’t break policy. Policy manuals are imperfect attempts to help navigate through reality. You will have times when not only does policy not allow the right choice, but there won’t even be a good one. When you seem trapped by policy, start thinking bigger: What external factor can you change to prevent that constraining policy from kicking in? Also, sometimes we forget that most policies are “if–then” propositions. Get in the habit of considering worst-case scenarios well in advance, and then craft action plans that prevent them from being possible. And never forget, sometimes doing nothing is the best option.
- New sergeants can have trouble holding staff accountable. This is especially true if your staff knows you did the very things that you’re now correcting. Take corrective measures anyway. In time, you’ll learn the right amount of discipline or correction to implement, but the important thing to remember is that staff missteps require some sort of an affirmative response. Good employees accept and even respect appropriate correction, and bad employees will take note that with you, they need to fly right.
- Don’t let your natural desire to be liked overly influence you. Seek subordinates’ trust and respect based upon your words, efforts and actions being in alignment — and properly motivated staff will appropriately “like” you. The sergeant job will change you. The way that you can make sure that these changes will be a net positive is by making sure your words, efforts and actions are consistent. Over time, that causes you to become predictable, and that’s the biggest thing that your troops want. After all, credibility is the cornerstone of leadership. Cops can handle a lot of stuff, but an unpredictable sergeant isn’t one of them.
- Take time to clearly explain why, but don’t expect that to result in universal agreement. There are very few situations when your staff shouldn’t know all of the whys. Letting them know why you (or management) have chosen as you have will satisfy most cops. But sometimes even the most logical explanation will be met with heartfelt indignity. Nonetheless, always remember to back up all the other “W” words with the why.
- Marginalize low performers and don’t allow them to usurp your authority. As I prepared for my very first shift briefing, there was one deputy who I knew might take me on. Sure enough, that very night he launched a somewhat deniable challenge. Some of the deputies smirked. I ignored it, but when I told them to hit the streets, I added, “Deputy Jones, stay seated. I’d like to speak with you privately.” Now, all the deputies smirked. They knew he was going behind the woodshed. Remember, never give up the high ground. Shift troublemakers can be a lot of work, but don’t avoid the situation. Hold them accountable. Let your extra efforts with them be concrete examples to others that just as good attitudes are rewarded, lousy attitudes won’t be.
- Don’t own sticky wickets, give them to your lieutenant. There are a lot of no-win situations for cops, but they multiply for sergeants. For most of the costly mistakes that sergeants make, there is enough time to consult a lieutenant. Do that and the lieutenant becomes the new problem owner. Recognize that for the gift that it is, and don’t forget to use it.
- Tackle the rumor issue. Rumors are designed to disrupt and hurt. Usually they contain at least an ounce of truth, and oftentimes more. The law enforcement rumor mill is powerful and wicked. When rumors are allowed or even nourished at the vital sergeant rank, its power and wickedness multiplies. But light is a great disinfectant. More than any other rank, sergeants can put an end to rumors. When you hear one, call it out into the open and address the truth. Continually verbalize your intolerance for rumors.
- Focus on your own character and continual growth. Double-check your motives before you act (self-centered versus other-centered). Wield your new power honorably, and be honest with everyone. You’ll accomplish that best by putting your own character awareness in the spotlight every day. Like good parenting, you’ll know you’re getting there when you find yourself naturally considering your officers’ benefit before your own.
- Practice humility as best you can. Experts agree: Of all leadership traits, the most attractive is humility. Cops like confidence, but they don’t like ego-driven leaders. The first order of humility is having something to be humble about, so stay as sharp and as capable as you can. Humble leaders draw people in and grow a willingness for understanding, cooperation and teamwork. Then, because gratitude tames ego, remain grateful. Except for the chief or sheriff position, you were handed the greatest opportunity to lead in your entire department. Enjoy it, but every day, earn the trust that was given to you.
- Finally, I always gave each new sergeant the book The Leadership Challenge. Then, I’d hand them a copy of the list above. I told them to keep it, and on their yearly promotion anniversaries, to read it again and take stock of how they were doing.
Done right, sergeanting is hard work. If you’re a new sergeant or want to be one, I hope this list helps. Or, if your sergeant and co-workers might benefit from it, maybe copy this article and slip it onto