New Leadership is the Way Forward


UnknownTraining Police in the New Leadership

In April, 1987, Sabine Lobitz and I wrote an article that appeared in The Police Chief, “Quality Leadership: The First Step Towards Quality Policing.” We felt then as we do today, some three decades later, that this is a time of great opportunity for police to progress and progress will not be happening without developing progressive police leaders.

Let’s begin with the basics. What is progressive police leadership today? One of the most important skills of a competent leader is to be able to ask and listen – and listen deeply.

What do police want from their leaders? Ask. Because if we are going to move forward as a profession, leaders must understand what rank and file officers need from us to do a “quality” job. Time and time again, beginning years ago with the Public Agenda Foundation, employees say this about what they need from their leaders – (whether those workers are police, teachers, or corporate employees).

  • To work with people who treat me with respect.
  • Interesting work.
  • Recognition for good work.
  • A chance to develop my skills.
  • To work for people who listen to me if I have ideas on how to do my job better.
  • A chance to think for myself.
  • To work for efficient managers.
  • A job that is not too easy.
  • Seeing the end results of my work.
  • To feel well-informed about what is going on.

Today’s progressive police leaders are not only askers and listeners but also people who are committed to the growth of their employees, they envision, they team, and they walk their talk.

Simply said, it is important to treat our employees well in order to retain them and be able to implement their ideas on how to improve work. This will assure that our employees will, in turn, follow this example in their dealings with citizens – all of them – those whom we serve.

The loss of our good police officers and failure to attract the best and brightest in our communities has cost us dearly in the quality of the services we deliver.

In the past, many police officers were not educated and had little previous job experience. Today, that is not the case. We have a great number of college graduates in our ranks. We used to say that we needed more training.  However, over the years we have dramatically increased our commitment to pre-service as well as in-service training (though many departments remain solidly in the past by maintaining a quasi-military training model that gives the wrong message about who police are in a democracy.  We used to say that it was the low pay.  However, most police salaries are now competitive with other occupations also seeking quality employees.  In spite of the post-Ferguson trust backlash, policing is still one of the more respect public professions (see recent Gallup poll on this).

Sabine and I wrote back in the 80s:

“Perhaps if we had more strongly believed in the worth of our employees, encouraged their self-improvement, creativity, and growth… there is no telling where we would be today as a profession.”

Could it be that our traditional, top-down coercive leadership style works against the changes that are needed today in policing?  I won’t go into the history here of the importance in the past to have strong controlled central bureaucracies in order to try and prevent corruption and the unfortunate belief that technology would solve our problems. In order to do so, police were centralized and removed from the community.  At this point in time, control of the police became more important than providing neighborhood services to citizens.  At the center of this model was the strong, authoritarian chief.

There is little doubt that such a strong model of authority and the organizations it produced is attractive.  It has order, simplicity and predictability.  The problem with this style of leadership is that it literally neglects everything we know about people and their behavior.

Years ago, Tom Gordon described how people react when persons in authority use power to coerce compliance. The use of coercive power causes people to reduce their upward communication (what they tell their bosses).  It can also cause people to engage in rivalry, competitiveness, rebellion and/or withdrawal.  The use of coercive power costs the leader in time, enforcement, alienation, stress and, eventually, diminishing influence.

When a leader forces others to comply, a tremendous amount of follow-up time is spent after orders are given in order to assure compliance.  The use of coercive power also costs organizations that use it because less-than-quality decisions result.  This happens because workers withhold important information that may be necessary to make quality decisions.

(Perhaps, we all can think of situations in which we were coerced into having to accept a superior’s decision without our input.  Remember having personal responses similar to the ones above?  Not only does the use of coercive power diminish bottom-up communication, it also has a negative impact on ideas, creativity, and innovation. Important aspects for effective 21st century policing.

If people react this way, why do we continue to run our organizations like this?

I am afraid that manner leaders decide it is safer and more comfortable not to. Authoritarian leadership does not encourage creativity or risk-taking.  It has no tolerance for even honest mistakes and no room for experimentation.  It is for these very reasons this leadership style will not move police forward. Will not solve the problems of trust erosion and lack of community support.

How many of the future predictions three decades ago of John Naisbitt and Patricia Auburdene in Reinventing the Corporation have held true? See for yourself:

  • The best and the brightest people will gravitate toward organizations that foster personal growth.
  • The manager’s new role is coach, teacher, and mentor.
  • We are moving from authoritarian management to a networking, people-style of management.
  • Quality will be paramount in the organization.
  • Intuition and creativity are challenging the “it’s all in the numbers” business school philosophy.
  • Large corporations are emulating the positive and productive qualities of small organizations. 

The 21st century is telling us to put the needs of our citizens with answers from our employees. And this will require a new leadership style consisting of men and women who function as coaches, mentors, and teachers, and who are committed to improving and developing the skills and abilities of their employees.  This will enable our organizations and employees to be successful in this new century with its new demands and expectations.

One way of understanding the old leadership style is to compare the main points of the two styles:


         Old Style                                               New Style                                 

  • Response to incidents.                         Solving problems.            
  • Individual effort.                                  Use of teamwork.                                                          
  • Professional expertise.                       Asking customers & community.                
  • Go by the book/emotions.                   Use data-based decision making.    
  • Tell subordinates.                                 Ask and listen to employees.
  • Boss as order-giver.                              Coach and teacher.           
  • Maintain status-quo.                            Create, innovate, experiment.           
  • Control and watch.                               Trust employees.             
  • Technology is better than people.    People are the best resource.                                                             
  • Blame employees.                                 Errors mean a failed system.                 
  • Organization is closed.                        Organization is open/transparent.

If we improve the way in which we lead the men and women in our police organizations, we can rebuild trust and achieve quality in policing.  However, wanting to improve and improving are worlds apart.  The road to improvement is littered with good intentions and short-term efforts.  We must make a long-term commitment, from chiefs to police officers, to see these improvements through.  They will not survive if it is an idea of the chief, or of the union, or of the mayor; it can only happen if it is our idea — all of us together.

As we wrote years ago, this is a big order:

“It is the establishment of a new philosophy and style of police leadership.  This style of leadership will assure the achievement of quality police services, a more community-oriented policing style and the use of new approaches to problem-solving, because it sets an organizational culture that permits not only movement to these new concepts in policing, but gives us the ability and flexibility to move beyond them.  This new style is oriented not only to changing community needs, but also to the changing needs of our employees. 

“There is flexibility in this style, a built-in survival mechanism that is attuned to the inside as well as the outside of the organization — employees and citizens.  We will be able to exist as a viable organization in the future and it will help us achieve quality,  a quality defined by keeping the public’s peace and closely serving our neighborhoods; all within the rule of law.”[i]

For top leaders to implement this New Leadership within their organization it will take PERSONAL commitment — top down won’t do it; telling others to do it without modeling it yourself will NOT work!

If you are committed to moving forward, then you have to be the change you want to see and then you must be open enough to receive feedback as to how you are doing — this means making mistakes, correcting them, and pressing on.

I want to tell you that to do this will no doubt change your life as much as it did mine. (You can read more about what I did in Madison, Wisc. when I was chief in my book, “Arrested Development.”


[i] David C. Couper and Sabine Lobitz. “Quality Leadership: The First Step Toward Quality Policing. The Police Chief. April, 1987.




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