Could law enforcement be leader-LESS in the future?

Prepare for impending generational change in the ranks with the adoption of shared leadership practices and delegating authority


This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

By Captain Sarah Richards

What would policing look like if there were no sergeants or lieutenants? While some officers might consider that a dream come true, managers may foresee it as chaos. With Generations Y and Z at the helm in the future, this scenario could be coming sooner than you think.

As younger generations enter the profession, they will want to alter the traditional structure of rank, and the ways power and authority are delegated through the chain of command. Why, then, should leaders worry about it today? 

The recruits departments are hiring today are tomorrow's sergeants, lieutenants, captains and chiefs – or are they?
The recruits departments are hiring today are tomorrow's sergeants, lieutenants, captains and chiefs – or are they? (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Generation Y (the Millennials) and Generation Z want to be a part of the real change they expect to see in the world. What better way to facilitate change than to join the ranks of the police and create change from within? 

Moving away from formal leadership

The recruits departments are hiring today are tomorrow's sergeants, lieutenants, captains and chiefs – or are they? The military rank structure has been tied to law enforcement since its inception in the 1800s, but as society has changed and evolved, law enforcement has been slow to evaluate this paramilitary structure and how that serves the needs of their communities. Newer generations view leadership based on the contributions of individuals for the betterment of the group, not solely based upon a formal rank.

Today, Millennials are transitioning into supervisory roles primarily held by Generation X and the end of the Baby Boom generation. Within a few years, Millennials will comprise the majority in leadership roles. As they do, the ways they understand the differences between their generation and those entering policing can be a foundation to facilitate change in the workplace.

The changing generations

According to the United States Census Bureau, 2030 is a demographic turning point for the country as all Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964) will be over 65 years of age. By this time, one in five Americans will be of retirement age, and immigration is expected to overtake births as the driver of population growth.[1] As the workforce gets younger, subsequent generations will become its leaders and face the issue confronting all who came before them – how to integrate the worldviews of differing generations into productive teams.

Generation X (born between 1965-1980) accounts for 40-50 million Americans. They are largely the members of policing filling supervisory and managerial ranks today as Boomers move into retirement. Millennials (born between 1981-1996) are also moving into mid-management roles. They are the first generation to grow up in the technology age; as teenagers, information was at their fingertips. They tend to seek work that allows them to use their creative skills and are willing to challenge authority and look for innovative solutions to problems. [2]

By 2030, Generation Z (born between 1997-2012) will make up over 30% of the workforce. [3] Generation Z are the world’s first true “digital natives” where information has always been immediately accessible, which helps them relate closely with the Millennials. Additionally, with diversity at the core of their beings, Generation Z appears to be more independent and socially minded thinkers who want to create a more equitable future for all. [4] They place a high value on authenticity and connectivity in their relationships and in society; they also seek flexible work environments, clear directions and transparency in the workplace. [2]

While largely lumped together when discussing the “younger generation” in the workforce, there are distinct differences between Millennials and Generation Z. Millennials tend to choose their authority and will not respect an authority figure unless that authority has been earned. [5] On the other hand, Generation Z does not automatically trust those in positions of power and instead respects regular people who stand up for what they believe in to exercise their personal power. [6] When it comes to leadership styles, Generation Z prefers a culture that enables change and is technology driven. The traditional office hierarchy does not appeal to them, [7] which is why the leaders of today need to consider how training the new generation of officers will influence them as future leaders in law enforcement.

Becoming leader-LESS

According to Ronen Aires, the youth are “leader-LESS” preferring self-directed committees which work collaboratively to “create magic,” rather than the antiquated system that celebrated the individual. Team leadership of the future is not leaderless but rather “LESS” leaders, LESS ego, LESS control and LESS bravado.

Millennials and Generation Z are reshaping the idea of “the leader” role and focusing rather on “the tribe” infusing empathy, kindness, collaboration and resilience into the team. [8] How many more officers could be hired by an agency with a flatter hierarchal structure? If we don’t pay the singular lieutenant the larger salary and benefits package, how much more could the starting salary be for the rookie officers? 

Research by the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership indicates younger generations look to the shared leadership concept to move forward without the need for a single designated leader. [9] This concept is foreign to most in law enforcement management today. However, why couldn’t it work?

Most self-led teams using the concept of shared leadership are creative and technology-based companies where the team drives the group to succeed to accomplish the mission. [10] These companies appeal to the younger generation’s desire to participate in the process without designating singular leaders. The driving concept is that leadership for a team emerges from within the group’s construct. When a team’s goals are aligned with the department’s mission, the team is allowed to be nimble and adaptive to the needs of those being served, thus reducing the time to adjust and allowing them to be more responsive. [9] Recognizing that the younger generations desire a more collaborative work environment, it’s time to look at how shared leadership and self-led teams work in business and how they could work in policing.

A recent "Forbes" article written by Rodger Dean Duncan explores what shared leadership is in a team. Shared leadership is not multiple formal leaders, but rather team members exhibiting leadership behavior on a situational basis. The epitome of teamwork and collaboration is where people have a comprehensive understanding of the mission and goal and know what their role is in achieving them. In creating this work environment, teams realize a higher level of psychological safety due to better communication and constructive conflict. Team members feel they can speak up, ask questions and admit misunderstandings without being judged. [11]

The concept of shared leadership is not a new one. Many businesses in the corporate world from Zappos to Google are well known for their ventures into non-traditional supervisory roles. Collaborative workspaces where employees mingle with each other and tear down barriers in communication is both figuratively and physically evident. A primary benefit is that “low-power” individuals have just as much say and input into the success of an organization as executive managers giving employees a greater sense of buy-in and ownership in the company’s mission and goals. [12]

In Google’s team leadership model, employees work in groups on projects. The groups are comprised of multiple employees from different positions in the company. These groups work on different projects while overlapping with each other. On some projects, employees may have a higher level of responsibility or participation; in other projects, they may take a lower or more supportive role. The groups collectively agree on which direction to take the project and are allowed the space to creatively reach the company's end goal.

Another example is Morningside Farms, which enters into letters of agreement with its employees. The letters outline the employees’ responsibilities to the employer; the number of hours they will work, the term of their contract, what the employer’s obligations are to their employees; pay and benefits. It clearly outlines expectations and is mutually agreed upon to achieve the company’s goals while creating very high employee job satisfaction. [12] There are no supervisors or middle managers, employees hold each other accountable as team members. Ultimately, if the employee does not live up to their letter of agreement, their contracts are not renewed.

What is most important in these examples is the employee and the employer have a clear direction, a mutual understanding of the expectations, and a collaborative approach allowing employees to hold each other accountable, rather than a singular supervisor. Would such approaches work in policing, with its sense of urgency and need for order? There are already examples showing how shared leadership can be a path to self-directed teams.

Shared leadership in policing

In the more than 20 years since the 1999 Columbine shooting, officers are trained now to “go to the sound of the guns” and not wait long periods of time for supervisors or elite special teams to respond to the scene. [13] Active shooter training is an example of ways the police can alter their training to address both tactics and leadership. When officers have a clear understanding of management’s expectations, the mission and the goal, and they have been given the latitude to make the decision necessary in the moment, this is shared leadership at its finest.

Chief Todd Wuestewald of the Broken Arrow Police in Oklahoma introduced a shared leadership model in policing in 2004. Chief Wuestewald embraced the ideals of “employee empowerment” allowing representatives from all ranks, both civilian and sworn, to have some say in the decision-making process for the department.

By flattening out the organizational hierarchy, Chief Wuestewald was able to alleviate some internal strife and improve communications. The Broken Arrow Police Department management found that utilizing shared leadership and less of a top-down approach to leadership improved employee commitment, pride, morale, motivation and productivity. [14]

In 2010, Chief Wuestewald was interviewed about his concepts of shared leadership. [15] He noted that empowerment is rooted deeply in relationships and trust from both sides. “If there are any personal agendas involved, it isn’t going to work,” Wuestewald said.

He also indicated that when people are given power, they usually take responsibility seriously. For example, when rank-and-file employees rewrote the disciplinary process for the Broken Arrow Police Department, they were far stricter than the previous policy or what he would have suggested. [15]

Andrea Ovans looks at why “leaderless teams” could never be successful, saying that ultimately someone has to be held accountable and that without strong leadership bringing the team to the end goal, the direction of a team is lost and members are set adrift feeling confused about the mission and the goal. [16] This emphasizes the need to train to create better, albeit fewer, leaders. Tactical scenarios need that singular point of contact and direction.

However, officers assigned to patrol, community-oriented policing, or recruitment could benefit from the flexibility of being a self-led team. Recognizing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, officers can rely on one another to solve issues. With appropriate training and authority, they can transition into a self-led team alleviating the need for a supervisor by teaching the officers to supervise themselves.

Millennials and Generation Z to lead the way

As previously discussed, Millennials and Generation Z will be changing the delegation of power and authority in the workplace to better suit their expectations. [8] They want inclusive work environments where people are seen as equals and their voices are heard. The challenge facing law enforcement is how to prepare today for rank structure changes in the future. Based on observed models of historical, policing and generational trends, the following are three ways to chart this course:

1. Train better officers NOW! 

Instead of waiting until officers start to seek promotions, implement leadership training as early as the academy. Generation Z is immersed in education and continuing education for them is appealing. Leadership training will not only create better leaders but better officers and followers. Now is the time to start training them to make proper decisions so in the future they understand “why” it has always been done this way and not make change for the sake of making change.

2. Involve all ranks in the decision-making process and intentionally solicit new officers.

There is so much talk about transparency in law enforcement that often departments forget that there also needs to be transparent internal communication. Allowing new officers a place at the table creates better buy-in and support of decisions. It is time to pull back the curtain and allow everyone to understand how decisions are made.

Additionally, Generation Z is the most technologically advanced of any of the generations. They are diverse and accepting without the same perceptions of sexuality, gender, or race as their predecessors. [17] The older generations in the workplace can benefit from hearing some of these ideas to better serve their communities. Racial and cultural diversity should be embraced by law enforcement and not strictly used as buzzwords in recruitment materials. By removing some of the many layers of rank, open communication and progressive ideas could be implemented rapidly to better serve communities. Their ideas for solutions to issues facing departments could be revolutionary.

3. Delegate authority and responsibility when appropriate.

Not every decision has to involve the chief, the sergeants and every level of middle management. Delegate and encourage decision-making once officers have proven themselves to be responsible and ready for the task. The way law enforcement operates currently is by giving brand new officers authority to arrest someone or take their life but having a departmental policy on what color socks they wear is asinine and unnecessary. Officers should feel comfortable making decisions, that directly impact their job in accomplishing the mission of their department. This will encourage a more collaborative work environment and teach officers how to make decisions at a lower level rather than constantly having to seek approval from management.

A police agency without first-line supervisors is not a reasonable reality and a change of this magnitude could not and would not would happen overnight, but the time has come to discuss cutting out some of the seemingly endless levels of supervision and review.

Conclusion

Law enforcement is deeply rooted in tradition. There are some traditions such as integrity and service to the community that should never go away. However, there was a time when computers, automated enforcement and even female officers were considered outrageous and outlandish ideas that would NEVER work. Those are now accepted norms, and now we’re discussing the future of drones making enforcement contacts. It should not be assumed that the rank structure must stay the same because that is the way it is now.

The concept of a shared leadership model in law enforcement is something to be explored rather than dismissed and avoided. There is an opportunity today to improve the commitment and understanding of the department’s mission and goals by the generations entering the profession. Officers who are a part of the decision-making process would be able to provide a quicker response and create a greater connection to the communities they serve. Finally, higher morale and greater job satisfaction would be realized by the rank and file if their voice was truly a part of the process.

References

1. Vespa J, Armstrong DM, Medina L. (February 2020.) Demographic Turning Points for the United States.

2. Indeed Editorial Team. (May 2022). 5 Generations in the Workplace: Their Values and Differences.

3. Jazner C. (May 2021). Workest.

4. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (April 14, 2021). What are the Core Characteristics of Generation Z? 

5. House P. (August 2001). Generation born since 1983 takes a new view of authority. 

6. Media & Entertainment Strategies. (May 2018). Generation Z: Kind, Tolerant, and Distrustful of Authority. 

7. Blazek K. (February 2016). The Leadership Ztyle of Gen Z.

8. Aries R. (October 1, 2020). The Youth are Leaderless, is Self-Leadership the Way Forward?

9. Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership. (September 29, 2020). Leaderless Teams. 

10. Peterson J. (2018). Want to get More from Your Millennial Employees? Start Using "Leaderless Teams."

11. Duncan RD. (January, 2021). What 'Shared" Leadership Is, and What It's Not.

12. Hansen. (March 8, 2016). Is Leaderless Management a Fad or the Future of Business

13. Sanchez R. (February 15, 2018). How Columbine changed the way police respond to mass shootings.

14. Vocoli. (May 15, 2015). How employee suggestion programs can help police departments.

15. Damewood A. (April 18, 2010). Oklahoma police model new structure.

16. Ovans A. (2012). When No one's in Charge? Harvard Business Review.

17. Perna MC. (2021). Why Millennials Have a Chance to Create a More Gerniration-Agnostic Workplace. Forbes.

Bibliography

Espinosa J. (2019). Is Going to a Leaderless Structure the Right Solution? David Couper Consulting.

Kotow E. (2019). How Realistic is a leaderless Organization? HedgeTrade.


About the author

Captain Sarah Richards has been a member of the California law enforcement family since 2001. In the past 21 years, she has served as a drug recognition expert, a member of the critical incident investigation team, a public information officer and as an area commander in three separate commands for over seven years. Since May 2020, Richards has been working as a captain in Sacramento and is responsible for social media and community outreach efforts statewide. Captain Richards attended the Sherman Block Supervisor Leadership Institute, Class 373, and is most recently a graduate of POST Command College, Class 68. She is passionate about creating great leaders in the future of law enforcement. 

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