A SWAT officer’s guide to tactical leadership

Leadership is the ability to inspire people to do what needs to be done, even if they don’t necessarily want to do it. Tactical leadership requires personal attributes to inspire and motivate others toward a common mission. 

allow success

Great leaders won’t tell their officers how to do their jobs. Great leaders will ensure their personnel have already been well trained in how to do their job. A great leader will present the task or objective to be completed, establish the platform in which to operate and then will allow the officer to achieve his own success. When the officer achieves success, that results in success for the leader and the team.

solicit input

A great leader will solicit input from his officers. It doesn’t matter if it’s at a critical incident or a training event. When you do solicit input you will discover different concepts an ideas you were sure to miss. This also develops trust and a bond that only SWAT officers experience.

empower officers

Tactical leaders should empower SWAT operators with tasks and objectives allowing freedom for creativity, granting the authority to make decisions and to act upon them. Also, the leader should provide direction and support depending on the SWAT operator’s experience.

grow future leaders

The next component of great leadership is to “grow” future leaders. This may be the greatest challenge to the tactical leader, but as the commander you are responsible for the overall operation of your unit. It will take a significant amount of time and effort, but the unit’s future successes will depend on your efforts. Provide opportunities to all your SWAT officers, so you avoid favoritism.

When growing future leaders consider challenging every individual, everybody will benefit, and the sharpest SWAT cops will rise to the top. Identify leadership potential early, and challenge appropriately. Encourage SWAT operators to make decisions, experience leadership, and take risks. Officers will learn from both successes and failures. Provide opportunities for professional growth and promotion.

To identify and develop future leaders, team commanders should know your officer’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Create an environment that encourages officers to take reasonable risks and treat setbacks or failures as opportunities for learning and improvement.

When the officer’s initiatives fail, commend the attempt and turn it into a learning experience. A lot of younger officers have a fear of failure, which often prohibits him or her from achieving their full potential.

lead by example

Practice what you preach. SWAT cops are observant and can see through a leader in short order. Expecting your officers to perform in one manner and you doing something other than what you expect of them will foster animosity. Eventually, you will lose their respect and their confidence in your leadership. Once an officer loses respect for his leadership the success of SWAT operations may result in failure. Lead by example with character, confidence and loyalty.

George Washington required his officers in the Continental Army to have character, professional ability, integrity, prudence and loyalty. He provided a concept or platform for his leaders to command by, rather than stringent rules that could get misinterpreted by individual leaders and ultimately causing failure. Use Washington’s concept to allow your team leaders to command with confidence without the fear of breaking policy in lieu of sound tactical decisions.

have vision

A tactical leader should have the vision to see beyond the current dilemmas they are faced with and the strength of character to stay the course as they command in the face of adverse conditions.

Remember these principles to command by and enjoy your unit’s success:

  • Empower subordinates to be creative
  • Set standards that give SWAT operators goals to reach
  • Provide challenging and enlightening tasks
  • Identify and develop people with leadership potential
  • Recognize unit and individual successes
  • Encourage and facilitate professional growth
  • Begin developing and training future commanders

Tactical leaders should work hard in the eyes of their officers. Gen. Colin Powell put it this way, "If you want them to work hard and endure hardship, you must work even harder and endure even greater hardship, they must see you sacrifice for them".

Worry about what your SWAT operators think of you — not what the upper chain of command thinks of you. If you are a great leader, with sound tactical decision-making skills with concern for your officers then the dedication and commitment your officers give to you will be the positive impression that the upper brass needs to form an opinion of your leadership skills.

Your officers must see you do the hard things, they must see you giving credit to SWAT operators when credit is do, and they must see you take the blame for something that they did wrong. It’s important that they feel you really care for them, that you will sacrifice for them, that you trust them. This can’t be achieved through words. Your actions as a tactical leader will provide the foundation for your officer’s trust and total commitment.

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