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How to be the architect of your police leadership career

Hard work and self-improvement is not just the path to positional success – it is the path to true leadership


Being true to your best version of yourself and the high calling of public service creates habits of performance that will serve you well.


This article originally appeared in the January 2019 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Architect a leadership career | Who counsels the chief? | Policing the hot spots, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

It was early in my career that I decided I wanted to be the boss. I was frustrated (and envious) when I saw others moving up in rank seemingly by sheer luck. A sudden vacancy, preferential treatment and being in the right place at the right time seemed to have more influence on the opportunity for advancement than did enthusiasm, hard work and preparation for advancement.

While there are many factors in promotion over which you have no control, here are some things you can focus on and develop, with the hope that rank may follow:

Be consistently excellent all the time

It’s tempting to ask yourself who cares and who’s watching. The answer is you do and you never know. Whether you get recognized or not, being true to your best version of yourself and the high calling of public service creates habits of performance that will serve you well. An attitude of high performance only when there is an audience, only when you’re in the mood, or only when a call is particularly interesting will create a habit of sporadic performance and lack of dependability.

Take initiative

That doesn’t always mean pushing your own ideas. If you’re passionate about a program idea for improvement, don’t automatically expect support and encouragement. A more diplomatic approach is to participate fully in initiatives being promoted by existing leadership. Watch how those efforts unfold, how subordinates adapt and how leadership navigates the change. If you’re going to learn from failure or success, let it be someone else’s first.

Focus on others

Calculate the balance between self-preservation and self-promotion, but the purest leadership is serving others. As a practical matter, the person you ignore or use today might be in a position to help or hinder you in the future. Sometimes leadership is pulling others up, lifting others up, or walking next to them. If you want to play the chess game of manipulating others to your advantage you may achieve positional success, but you’ll never achieve respect.

Cultivate the present

It’s tempting to want to jump through the hoops and check off the boxes to promotion. If you get a detective assignment on the way to your dream job of being a patrol sergeant, make the most of it even if investigations is not your passion. There is no knowledge lost in police work, so learn all you can in whatever assignment you get.

Be your own best coach

There may be a time when you are offered an assignment or position that you feel you are not ready for. There is likely more career peril in turning down an opportunity than there is in finding you don’t like it or aren’t good at it. There are more people who don’t care or who don’t want you to succeed than are cheerleaders, so be your own best encourager and find others to cheer you on.

Frequently engage in reflection

The five points already offered can help you measure your attitude toward your career and advancement. Even if you disagree with the suggestions it can be a starting point for discussion with yourself and trusted peers. Keep your self-talk positive, avoiding rumination on the opinions of others or your perceived shortcomings. Constant criticism of the man in the mirror is not productive; honest self-evaluation is.

The truth is that honest hard work and self-improvement is not just the path to positional success – it is the path to true leadership regardless of your rank.

Career development resources for law enforcement leaders:

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.