What really matters for effective police leadership? By: Chris D. Lewis

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In my previous two articles, I espoused two of my steadfast beliefs – based on over 30 years in police supervision and executive leadership roles in one of North America’s largest police services:

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  1. Leadership can make or break morale and in doing so affect levels of police employee professionalism and productivity. Without effective leadership, employees won’t feel connected, will not be inspired and will likely not act and do their very best; and
  2. Police department professionalism and productivity ultimately impact public trust. The department is not apt to develop the vital trust of the public they serve if they are not perceived to be professional and always trying their best to ensure community safety and reduce victimization. Overall, such a scenario will create an ineffective “us versus them” policing environment and severely hurt both employee retention and the ability to recruit the best the community has to offer.

While you are reading this article, I’d ask that you do two things: Firstly, think of the best leader you ever worked for and what made them that way. What was it they did or said that made you willing to walk through broken glass for them? Secondly and conversely, think of the worst boss you ever had. What was it about them that made you want to quit the job, go home and suck your thumb and cry yourself to sleep?

Leaders must be able to effectively talk and honestly listen, in good times and bad, formally in meetings and casually in the hallway, in groups and individually.Leaders must be able to effectively talk and honestly listen, in good times and bad, formally in meetings and casually in the hallway, in groups and individually.
Leaders must be able to effectively talk and honestly listen, in good times and bad, formally in meetings and casually in the hallway, in groups and individually. (Photo/Police1)

Weak leadership has negative impacts on all public or private sector organizations, but in a policing environment that continues to be plagued with allegations of racism and excessive force, that range from real to exaggerated to contrived, combined with calls for government reviews into and for the defunding of police, it has never been more critical to get leadership right. Police leaders owe that to their communities and to their employees.

Essential leadership skills

I was a cop most of my adult life and in leadership roles throughout. I saw and learned from the very best, but sadly they were few and far between. I also learned tremendous leadership lessons from the weakest of leaders, but they taught me how NOT to treat people. Then there was a large glut in the middle. They were supervisors and managers who really didn’t care about anyone but themselves; never tried hard to inspire, coach, or mentor others or to make good decisions; but at the same time were not necessarily offensive. They simply filled a uniform, or a suit and they were most often physically present, but that was it. For much of my career, it was a depressing picture.

When I wrote my book, “Never Stop on a Hill,” I put questions similar to what I asked you above regarding good and bad leaders to many police chiefs from across Canada in one-on-one interviews, and to thousands of police employees during lectures and through informal surveys I conducted. When I asked those questions to live audiences, I immediately saw the gears turning among them as they pictured the worst and the best leaders that have impacted their lives. Some smiled, others grimaced.

Chief Rick Deering (Ret.) of both the Ontario Provincial Police and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary told me: “The best leader I had the pleasure of working for was Roy Gordon, a common-sense, soft-spoken gentleman with a quick wit and a sense of humor that was appreciated by all. He taught me many valuable lessons regarding the art of leadership through the humility, empathy and honesty that accentuated every decision he made, particularly the difficult ones. In particular, he had the innate ability to accurately assess every situation on its own merits and apply the best resolution for all involved. Succinctly put, he was a master at both talking the talk, and walking the walk.”

Many police personnel at all levels describe individuals with similar “people skill” qualities that positively impacted them as leaders. They speak of courage, decisiveness, passion, support, humility, empathy and honesty. They give examples of leaders who were there for them in the tough times, personally and professionally. I heard descriptors like: “He’d stop and talk to people and make them feel special.” They confirmed my belief that leadership is all about people.

From an essential skill perspective, the qualities that most often resonate with employees are as follows:

  1. Communication. I firmly believe that if you can’t communicate you cannot lead. Leaders must be able to effectively talk and honestly listen, in good times and bad, formally in meetings and casually in the hallway, in groups and individually. Communicating with personnel about employee issues and needs as opposed to all the wonderful accomplishments of the leader is key. Ensuring an environment in which respectful feedback is both given and taken is a must.
  2. Decision-making. Real leaders do what is right, not what is easy or expedient, and do it for the right reasons – the good of the community and in the best interests of those being led, as opposed to what is best for the leader’s resume. They involve employees in identifying the problems and the solutions. When feasible, true leaders actively seek input prior to making decisions and at the very least communicate the “what” and the “why” of their decision-making. It should never be a “Where is this coming from?” environment from an employee perspective.
  3. Accountability. It should not be a “do as I say but not as I do world.”. True leaders ensure employees are accountable and that they are accountable themselves. Many employees expect to be held accountable but expect the punishment to fit the crime and in a uniform way. Many employees have told me stories of superiors who were totally unaccountable themselves but harangued good employees over the most trivial of issues while allowing pet employees to get away with anything. Fairness and consistency emerged as key themes, as did the ability of leaders to distinguish honest mistakes from acts of malice with an even-tempered approach.
  4. Caring and supportive. Employees of all ranks want leaders who know them, appreciate and care about them. I’ve regularly heard the sentence “He (or she) doesn’t even know me.” Of all the feedback I have received about my leadership success over the years (and I have had my failures as well), I have no doubt that “knowing” people has been my strength, as has knowing their names, stopping to say hello, asking them about their families, and acknowledging work successes. Also checking in on them following difficult personal or professional events are things that mean the world to people. And we cannot forget that they are “people” with names, histories, families, goals and feelings and a need to feel supported.
  5. Inspiring. When you think back to your own lives and careers, those who inspired you to be and do your very best undoubtedly stand out in your minds. As a leader, that should be a critical goal: Inspire those around you. Employees who feel they have a say, feel understood, appreciated and supported are much more apt to be inspired to contribute to department goals and strategies. At the same time, they will likely do it more professionally than those who merely do the minimum because they are forced to.
  6. Building trust. All successful roads lead to trust. By effectively and honestly communicating and supporting your people with integrity while demonstrating your faith in them, a two-way trustful environment will emerge. Would you strive to do your best for a leader who you do not trust? No. Nor will those you lead. Trust is a critical commodity. Work hard to build and maintain it.

Choose good leadership

Observations I have received about bad leaders are the total antithesis of the good and great ones. Bad leaders are largely described as unethical, dishonest and poor communicators. Some have tremendous egos. They are more concerned about their own careers than those of the officers they led. They play favorites, are insecure, show a lack of judgment and/or common sense, and are prone to panic and abuse people verbally through demeaning commentary and derogatory behavior.

Bad leaders were described by police officers as people who:

  • Cause hatred and dissension
  • Destroy morale and ruin lives
  • Won’t make decisions
  • Are self-serving and full of entitlement
  • Surround themselves with “yes people”
  • Are abusive, ignorant and rule with an iron fist
  • Care about no one but themselves
  • Blame others, take credit
  • Never seek input as they know it all.

The resounding lesson is this: Remember what the good leaders did and do those things yourself as a leader. Then remember what the bad leaders did and never do those things to anyone, ever. Those leaders significantly impacted you in both wonderful and disturbing ways, so you owe it to those you lead to use the positive attributes and not the negative qualities that you personally experienced.

You are bound to be a better leader as a result.

This article includes excerpts from “Never Stop on a Hill” by Chris D. Lewis and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Leadership, FBI LEEDA Insighter Magazine (Issue I – Winter 2022) by Chris D. Lewis.

NEXT: The 22 leadership traits cops are looking for in their supervisors in 2022