2 principles police leaders must embrace during COVID-19

A positive attitude and decisive action are critical during any crisis

By Rick Michelson, MPA, and Jeff Pierce, EdD

To handle the complex challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement agencies require strong and effective leadership.

Leadership principles are vast, but there are two that are essential during a crisis: a positive attitude and decisive action. [1,2] Let’s look at how these leadership principles effectively manifest during a crisis.

Members of the Los Angeles Police Department thank hospital workers after an officer was treated and recovered from COVID-19, Friday, April 17, 2020, outside Providence St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
Members of the Los Angeles Police Department thank hospital workers after an officer was treated and recovered from COVID-19, Friday, April 17, 2020, outside Providence St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Principle 1: A Positive Outlook

While we are experiencing an unprecedented crisis around the world, leadership needs to be the voice of hope. If leaders don’t embody a positive mindset, their actions may negatively influence followers, which could lead to a sense of hopelessness.

Research shows that a positive attitude facilitates resiliency, cognition and problem-solving, and coping and well-being under stress. [1]

Leaders should encourage perseverance through tough times (not doom and gloom), detail how to practically follow guidelines without being cynical, provide not only the physical resources but psychological resources (not just organizationally, but individually – being there for one another), and stress how important officers are to our communities and their well-being.

Principle 2: Decisive Action

Organizations that recover more quickly from crises are the ones that act swiftly. [2]

When organizations do not have plans in place or the capacity to address serious issues during a crisis, they will suffer not just operationally but politically. There likely will be repercussions well beyond the immediate crisis.

If a department loses public confidence, this could affect future benefits (e.g., no votes on public safety taxes). Therefore, leaders need to have contingency plans, as well as the ability and capacity to adapt and make quick decisions.

These plans on a macro level consist of expediently providing appropriate supplies, resources and emergency plans. On a micro level, police bureaus and individual squads should have local contingency plans in place; this is something that an individual group can do independently based on their unique needs.

All of these efforts should be in collaboration with external partners as appropriate such as other LE agencies, fire departments and hospitals. Most importantly, the ability and capacity of an organization’s leaders to act swiftly and decisively to correct wrongs and redirect efforts is critical.  

Emergency succession planning

Succession planning should already be in place for organizational longevity. However, during times of crisis, organizations may not have an appropriate leadership pipeline in place. [3]

Leadership succession is normally cyclical, with processes in place based on a timetable. When there is a potential for high numbers of unexpected leadership gaps, there should be a plan in place to fill these roles.

This plan would require an infrastructure to distinguish how and when these leadership moves would take place – each organization has its unique circumstances.

Informally, at the local level, individual leaders could proactively designate among their chain alternate leadership roles in cases of emergencies.

Successful leaders must be flexible

One of the most important aspects of successful leadership is flexibility. Leaders often rely on past successes to direct their leadership style, however during turbulent times, leaders must look outside of what has worked in the past.

Examining different perspectives and opinions can enable comprehensive reviews of matters that otherwise would not be possible. Furthermore, the leader’s flexibility and openness to different views will build confidence and trust among employees.

Through these pathways, leadership can lead and instill confidence in both employees and the community.

crisis leadership in a nutshell

Leadership’s responsibility starts with a positive outlook. Without exuding a positive message, the environment will not have the right tone from which to promote healthy attitudes. Then when confronted with tough decisions, leaders need to be decisive in their response. Whether redirecting efforts or correcting wrongs, these decisions should be swift.

Next, during these turbulent times, organizations on a large scale and individual leaders on a smaller scale should have contingency plans for gaps in leadership.

Finally, being flexible is vital for examining all views and perspectives in making the best decisions.


1. Sommer SA, Howell JM, Hadley CN. Keeping positive and building strength: The role of affect and team leadership in developing resilience during an organizational crisis. Group & Organizational Management, 2016. 41(2), 172-202.

2. Garcia HF. Effective leadership response to crisis. Strategy & Leadership, 2006, 34(1), 4-10.

3. Michelson R. Preparing Future Leaders for Tomorrow: Succession Planning for Police Leadership. International Association of Chiefs of Police Magazine, 2006.

About the authors

Rick Michelson’s 30 years of experience in law enforcement started with the San Diego Police Department where he served as a patrol, SWAT and FTO sergeant. He also served as interim chief, lieutenant and sergeant with two university and college police departments. He has taught at the graduate and undergraduate levels. As Director of KSA Ltd. (Knowledge, Skills & Abilities), he provides leadership development training workshops, using Assessment Centers methods, for officers who are preparing for supervisory and management positions. He is also the author of “Assessment Centers for Public Safety.” He has a bachelor’s degree from Chapman University and a master’s degree in Public Administration from National University. He was also a PhD candidate for the Union Institute and University.

Jeff Pierce is a 24-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department. Twenty of these years have been in a formal leadership role. Jeff began this journey as a field training officer. He was promoted to sergeant and worked patrol, precinct resource and investigative liaison positions. Then Jeff was promoted to lieutenant where he has worked as a shift commander for various precincts. He has taught at the university level for both undergraduate and graduate studies. He has taught various leadership courses at AZPOST and currently for the city of Phoenix. He is also an instructor for KSA Ltd., providing leadership development for public safety promotional preparation. In addition, Jeff has a doctorate from Northeastern University in organizational leadership studies.

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