Arguably, the single biggest threat facing law enforcement is lack of leadership. Leadership at the command level and throughout the ranks of our departments. Leadership down the chain of command has devolved into management by email, and leadership up the chain of command has too often been silenced due to insecurities and fragile egos. Even lateral leadership within our ranks has been tempered by oversensitivity to feedback and suggestions for individual change.
Compounding this problem is that law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and Canada have recently lost many experienced officers, instructors and supervisors. Retirement, lack of command staff support and fatigue from the constant negative feedback and portrayal of police officers in the media are all contributing factors. On top of this, many departments are struggling to find qualified and dedicated applicants to fill open positions. Perhaps this problem never would have occurred if departments took the time to mentor and develop their largest investment: their people.
By the very nature of the work, law enforcement officers are leaders. To the people in our communities, the uniform and badge represent a position of leadership, and it doesn’t make any difference whether you’ve been on the job 15 years or 15 minutes. The people we serve all look toward the uniform and badge for leadership.
In addition to serving as leaders within our communities, law enforcement agencies have a rank structure designed to provide leadership within our departments. Unfortunately, there are too many contemptible people filling command positions in law enforcement today. Far too many command staff positions are filled with people who care more about maintaining control of their part of the kingdom than they do about leading and developing the people they’re supposed to serve. They fear losing power and put the safety of their position before the needs of their agency and people. Maintaining positional power is more important to them than creativity, courage and leadership.
Command structures more interested in preserving control over the kingdom create a culture fed by institutionalized intellectual incest. In other words, we do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.
This type of rigid structure encourages overmanagement, discourages critical thought and creativity, and inhibits the growth and improvement of our people, training programs and departments. Without growth and evolution, our departments risk becoming outdated and ineffective. Worse, officers who are exposed to this type of environment on a daily basis are likely to become discouraged and begin feeling irrelevant and unappreciated. Once they look at themselves as just another cog in the machine, is it any wonder our noble profession is losing so many experienced officers?
This is completely counterproductive to fostering a creative and productive working and learning environment. But since we don’t know what we don’t know, instructors, supervisors and managers who have only been exposed to this approach may not understand why their departments are struggling.
Recognizing our flaws
The reason some law enforcement officers, instructors and supervisors fail to consistently practice leadership skills is complex. The absence of role models, lack of leadership training for people regardless of rank and an inability to recognize one’s own failings all contribute to this problem. But the single biggest reason we fail as leaders is as simple as this: It’s hard. Most people will naturally take the path of least resistance because it requires less time, less energy and less effort. As a result, it is easy to fail to practice leadership skills because leadership behaviors require work.
There are many avenues for us to ensure personal and professional accountability. A terrific way is to promote a culture of mentor leadership. Officers, instructors and supervisors should seek feedback on leadership values and their performance from trusted peers and mentors, and then apply that feedback, striving for constant improvement. A mentor could be someone you admire and want to learn from, it could be a peer from within your department whom you trust, or it could be someone in a higher rank from within your department or a neighboring department. This type of mentor leadership can keep us moving forward during difficult times. They are also vital during those periods when we need someone to hold us accountable for our failings and weaknesses. Trust me, we all have those times where we need someone to give us the proverbial kick in the butt.
Most people have a natural tendency to be self-deceived about their behavior. There are times we may not realize we’re failing. It is important for all leaders to be held accountable for their actions. Most everyone wants to be praised by others, and generally, most of us fear criticism. This natural aversion or apprehension can lead us to avoid feedback on ways to improve our performance. Feedback from trusted mentors allows ownership of our performance and behaviors, but it requires us to check our egos and be open to the advice.
Leaders must “talk the talk and walk the walk.” To be credible, leaders need to set a positive example in our work and daily lives. This includes continuously working to improve our skills, modeling the behavior we want to see from each other and practicing what we preach. Officers, instructors and supervisors must recognize they are leaders and work to promote leadership skills and behaviors.
If we are serious about improving the culture of our law enforcement agencies, we need to get serious about establishing a culture of mentorship. Mentorship at the command or supervisor level could be helping to prepare the next leader to take your spot in the organization. Mentorship at the instructor level would be to better prepare the newer instructors for a career in training and looking to recruit the next instructors into the unit. Officer-level mentorship could be more experienced officers helping to lead and train younger officers on report writing, tactics and investigations. Regardless of the position in a department, everyone should be preparing the next generation to be better and more successful than the current generation. This is the only way to improve and prevent lack of leadership from continuing to threaten our profession.
One of the best things about professional organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) is that membership comes with a built-in cadre of people who understand this concept and are willing to serve as mentors. Each of these organizations is filled with members who are willing to help. If you are a member of these organizations but can’t make it to one of their conferences, use the member resources available on their websites and Facebook pages. Using these resources, I’ve asked for help several times and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Don’t be afraid to reach out and establish connections with other members who could help you improve.
The goal of every good leader is not to build followers. The goal of every good leader is to build other leaders. As mentors, we should use our experiences to support and better prepare the people we supervise, train and serve. The measure of success for any teacher is to be surpassed by their students. As instructors, we should measure our success by watching those we have taught become mentors and lead their students into the future. As supervisors and command staff, the true measure of success isn’t a program, accreditation or writing a better policy manual. The best measure of success is whether we develop the next generation of leaders to be better and more capable than the generation they replace. If not, we have failed our departments, our people and our communities.