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What makes a good policing leader?

Over the last 20 years I have been involved in policing leadership development against a backdrop of increasing complexity. I have had the enviable role of having been a police officer, medically retired as a result of an almost fatal stabbing, as well as being a coach and mentor to high performing leaders at all levels in the service.

I propose that too frequently, leaders have been seduced by literature that seeks to reduce the highly contextual aspects of leadership into a set of easily digestible behaviours: ‘the 8 habits’; ‘the 10 success factors’; ‘the 5 essential roles’. In working through the context, complexity, and connections within which policing leaders frequently engage, this focus on simplicity has had little utility. It risks the danger of creating an unrealistic set of almost messianic skills that are unachievable by any one person. Good leaders therefore often feel disempowered and unfulfilled by failing to achieve a decidedly contentious set of principles.

In a significantly structured and stratified profession, policing leadership is never assured simply by the achievement of rank. Some of the most positively influential leaders in operational policing function through an informal network of influence rather than a rank based context. Regardless of rank or role, the various policing cultures pride themselves in their ‘can do’ approach to managing complex operational scenarios, so competence in this field is a necessity of good leadership. If they are to maintain the respect of their followers, high performing leaders recognise and act upon the need to be equipped to fulfil their operational responsibilities. Therefore, we can say that there is a disproportionate alignment between good leadership and operational competence.

From an operational perspective, police officers are acutely aware that they possess power on behalf of the state. Experienced officers, however, are equally mindful that the under-utilisation or enforcement of these powers frequently creates a negotiated settlement, and long-term positive impact for community relations. Implementing powers of arrest is relatively easy; successfully negotiating a valued-based outcome that doesn’t default to the use of state-authorised power takes considerably more skill and leadership.

…a good leader recognises the need to minimise their self-centred approach and move towards a more emotionally intelligent style

While the action-centred aspects of the policing cultures have helped individuals and teams achieve remarkable outcomes, the more reflective aspects of leadership have often been neglected. The public have become increasingly exasperated when policing seems to repeatedly make the same mistakes. In order to compliment the action-centred leadership approach, some policing leaders are increasingly engaged in creating learning rather than learned environments. Self-aware and self-reflective practitioners are encouraged to explore their modus operandi in a constructive manner, focused on continuous professional improvement.

At a personal level, a good leader recognises the need to minimise their self-centred approach and move towards a more emotionally intelligent style, where self-awareness becomes the vital leadership competency. In my experience, poor leaders consistently talk about themselves; good leaders are enthused by the opportunity to explore and nurture the talent that is within their sphere of influence.

In working with high performing policing leaders, one frequent characteristic to emerge is their ability to absorb considerable amounts of personal pressure on behalf of the organisation. Managing the demands of constant change, dealing with a personal complaint under intense public scrutiny, managing highly emotional and emotive public order interactions, coping with the dead and dying: all have a personal cost for those engaged in delivering, managing, and leading the organisational outcomes. While the vocational aspects of policing no doubt help focus individuals towards a greater purpose, nevertheless good leaders are capable of absorbing the strain and recognising its existence in others.

At a strategic level, good leaders demonstrate – and are able to articulate – a clear ethical vision for the future of the service. This has vital importance as it negotiates the often-contradictory space between the internal needs of staff and officers, the short-term requirements of politicians, and the long-term demands of the communities policing seeks to serve. This ethical vision is underpinned by a set of clearly expressed values that help those delivering the service bridge the gap between theory and praxis. Leaders thus create an environment where ethically-informed officers feel empowered and supported to take risks with their decision-making.

Policing leaders are now more conscious than ever that a multi-leader, public service approach to managing resources and outcomes is required. High performing leadership is now more focused towards articulating the value that policing brings to a connected public sector delivery. Negotiating, influencing, and compromise are critical success factors.

Featured image: Inverness Burgh Police Special Constabulary (WW2 era) 2 of 3 by Dave Conner. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Here’s a thoughtful essay on police leadership from a well respected UK police practitioner/educator who has had the opportunity to serve as a mentor/coach for numerous police executives. […]

  2. Mark Bowman

    We police in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and often ambiguous environment. I agree that we tend to simplify leadership, when the challenges police leaders face are anything but simple.

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