Today’s police officer faces an increasingly difficult environment. From the start of his or her service until the very end, law enforcement officials are required to make decisive judgments in crisis scenarios where life and public safety are the variables looming over their decision-making abilities. There are a few truisms we find in the post-mortem of nearly every crisis encounter. First, law enforcement officials fall back on their training in moments of crisis. The human body is a like a machine during these moments, using its impressive recall ability to nearly immediately evoke action; with very little thought. We are taught that our repetitive training and muscle memory will take over during those crucial moments. Secondly, if given the time to make decisions in both life-threatening and non-threatening scenarios, you want your officers equipped with another important characteristic. You want them to be leaders.
There is a reason that our nation’s armed services rely so heavily on their codified training process. Embedded in the training are both the components mentioned above, a reflexive response in crisis and the need to have leadership principles exist at the corps of every soldier, sailor, marine and airman. When practiced correctly, an individual reared in an environment where leadership is a core principle can be counted on to make sound, prudent and defensible decisions. Leadership is the critical component that will provide your officers with the ability to digest the data/circumstances and arrive at the best possible outcome or decision given any number of variables. In this construct, it can be your greatest safety net.
For department leaders, the study of leadership and its consistent practice can serve as the critical element of both future institutional and individual success. Often-times, following an incident where we commonly question the judgment of an officer or supervisor, the component most needed for positive outcomes is a culture of leadership. How else can we expect our men and women to synthesize all they have learned and make good decisions?
There is an age-old debate regarding whether people are born to lead. I would submit that a person’s ability to display a productive form of leadership is a function of both their innate internal characteristics and their environmental experiences. Can leadership be taught? Absolutely! But you cannot expect every individual to rise to the same level of competency. What is true is that every opportunity utilized to engage in the subject of leadership; to teach desired outcomes and ways of dealing with personnel, objectives and problems tends to yield more positive results than not. It also becomes important to model desired leadership behaviors, especially within our management or executive ranks. In fact, a culture of leadership can be viewed as the invisible x-factor responsible for driving the success of those much-exalted teams or departments where they seem to get it right on nearly every occasion.
With this being such a valuable and necessary component, how do we ensure that our officers have the necessary leadership training and exposure they will undoubtedly need on the streets or during those moments where judgment is crucial to success?
- Look for leadership characteristics in the backgrounds of your recruits. Yes, leadership can be taught, but a strong foundation ensures success.
- Make leadership competency a part of your core curriculum during indoctrination. Recruits should understand that good decision-making and judgment will be required of them every day of their tenure and the study of leadership will aid them in this endeavor.
- Identify leadership principles as part of your department culture.
- Place emphasis on leadership development (in both experience and academia) throughout the career of your personnel. The process of learning never stops.
- Ensure the leaders of the organization embody the principles most cherished by the department. What your present at the top will flow through all levels of the organization.