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Leadership development series: What kind of leader are you?

Today’s workforce demands chameleon leaders who not only know their people but can transition from one style of leadership to another

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Be the chameleon your people expect and have faith in their ability to support you, even when faced with challenging situations.

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The past few years have been immensely challenging for public safety leaders. A global pandemic, recruiting and retention issues, inflation, budgetary woes – it seems the list is endless. And agency leaders are often expected to do it all with less.

Leadership can be a thankless, 24/7 job; however, your agency depends on you to stay the course and provide guidance and wisdom to your employees. We often take leadership for granted. And it’s easy to question leadership effectiveness during high-profile events or challenging times. Sometimes, the questions center on whether a leader has the right type of leadership style for the specific situation or job.

So that brings us to the question, what type of leader are you?

There’s no right or wrong answer, but leadership styles can negatively and positively impact how the job gets done. I taught leadership fundamentals for the better part of 20 years and used to always open the course by asking, are good leaders born or made? That question led to interesting and often very lively conversations. The truth is anyone can be a leader, given the right circumstances, personal desire and training.

Now don’t misunderstand me. We all know there are some people who have no business serving in a leadership role. Alternatively, some folks are not leaders but should be. Leadership guru and author John Maxwell once said, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” Most leadership attributes come from within us. You don’t need a college degree or extensive training to know what exemplary leadership looks like. And you don’t need formal recognition to be a leader. We see examples of informal leadership every day in public safety work.

The evolution of leadership

When I was teaching leadership, I would illustrate what I called “the evolution of leadership” on the board. I’d start with the 1950s – a period where there was more of a “my way or the highway” approach to leadership. The typical workplace featured a male-dominated workforce with many veterans from both WWII and Korea. There wasn’t much focus on knowing the employee on a personal level. It was strictly business, very hands-on and autocratic. Fast-forward four decades to the 1990s. With the rise of the dotcom era, leadership transitioned to more of a “yo, it’s all good” approach. Flexibility and creativity were recipes for success, and leaders took more of a hands-off approach.

Today’s workforce demands a much different type of leader – a chameleon. We need leaders who not only know their people but can transition from one style of leadership to another. This is difficult for even the savviest of leaders. If you’ve ever taken a personality inventory, you know how your personality can impact the way you interact with others. It can also provide a glimpse into your preferred leadership style.

The big three

Being a chameleon often means going against your own hard wiring, taking a step back to understand problems from the employee’s perspective and then coming up with solutions to help tackle the problem. Sounds easy. It’s not! But you can start by understanding different leadership styles and where your natural propensity lies. There are myriad opinions on leadership styles, but I always like to focus the discussion on Kurt Lewin’s big three: [1]

  1. Authoritarian (autocratic)
  2. Participative (democratic)
  3. Delegative (laissez-faire)

The autocratic public safety leadership style

Autocratic leaders generally make all the decisions, often in a vacuum. Even when someone else makes a decision, the autocrat often makes adjustments or countermands the decision.

There’s a time and a place for this approach; however, it’s often corrosive and lends itself to micromanagement. Today’s employees are well-educated and resilient. They generally don’t need someone looking over their shoulder or providing too much guidance on required tasks. This is especially true in public safety. Give your employees direction and then let them do their jobs. Remain available in case they need assistance but resist the temptation to over-supervise.

One thing I’ve seen over the years is the tendency of certain leaders to impose their personal preference over an employee’s preference. The quickest way to show an employee that you don’t have faith in their ability is to constantly provide input or make changes that really don’t matter. Remember, there’s more than one way to get from point A to point B. Focus on the end goal and give your employees the latitude to develop their own solutions for getting there.

The democratic public safety leadership style

Democratic leaders often take an active role in the decision-making process, but they also involve others. This is the nature of teamwork and shows employees that you aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty and contribute. Democratic leaders are good at soliciting input from others; however, there are times when too many opinions hamper progress toward goals. Sometimes the leader needs to decide. Too much input or reliance on personal preferences from your team can lead to paralysis by analysis.

Public safety members are used to working in teams, so this leadership style is very effective with problem-solving. When your employees realize you’re open to their input, they’ll come to you with innovative ideas and solutions to challenging problems.

The laissez-faire public safety leadership style

Laissez-faire leadership is essentially hands-off. These leaders have very little involvement in decision-making, leaving most everything up to subordinates. This only works when you have a team of highly skilled and self-motivated employees who know what needs to get done each day.

This approach can work in specialized public safety units; however, there should still be a leadership presence for situations demanding a firm decision or when employees need additional guidance with new or unfamiliar tasks. I’ve seen situations where weak supervisors essentially abandon their leadership responsibilities and leave employees to formulate all their own strategies. Just like the other leadership styles, too much can be as ineffective as not enough.

[Take our quiz: Which leadership style fits you best as a police leader?]

Striving for perfection

Any one of Lewin’s leadership approaches by itself is likely ineffective, especially if it is the default manner by which an individual leader conducts business. If we explore the ideal leader, we see someone who can turn these unique styles off and on when confronted with different situations involving different subordinates. Being a chameleon means more than adaptation. It also means stepping outside of your own comfort zone to broaden your perspective through others. This requires an open mind and patience.

Entrepreneur Amine Rahal identifies eight integral leadership qualities necessary for today’s workplace. [2]

  1. Be empathetic: This is an essential quality for everyday life but is especially important for leaders. Empathy illustrates your connection to employees on a personal level. Without this trait, your people will become dissatisfied and leave the organization.
  2. Have a clearly defined vision: In public safety, this is typically fostered by clearly defined goals and objectives. Make sure your people understand what’s expected of them and provide the right type of leadership for each person and situation. Help your people obtain both personal and organizational goals.
  3. Be enthusiastic: Leadership is often anything but exciting; however, your people depend on you to show up to work ready for business. This includes taking a vested interest in organizational tasks and your people in general. Positivity is infectious and your attitude can make or break a team.
  4. Have endurance for the long haul: Many leaders start out motivated and spend a great deal of extra time on work commitments, only to lose their motivation over time. The desire to excel is normal in those who ascend to leadership positions; however, be sure to save some energy for tomorrow’s tasks. Leadership can be exhausting, so do your best to avoid burnout. Be sure to save time for yourself and your family. Although public safety leadership is a 24/7 commitment, it comes with a big cost if there’s no work-life balance.
  5. Effectively deal with change: Change is inevitable. In public safety we often abhor anything different and will expend more energy fighting against the proposed change than conforming to a new way of doing business. Keep an open mind and don’t let your people get surprised. Communication is essential when it comes to change. No one likes surprises.
  6. Embrace learning: Education is a big part of professional growth and success. Never stop learning something new and be sure you impress the importance of continuing education with your personnel. Public safety is ripe with formal and required training. However, it’s important for both you and your subordinates to venture outside of individual comfort zones and embrace additional knowledge, skills and abilities that enhance personal and professional growth.
  7. Foster high-performing team members: This requires not only delegating tasks that assist with professional growth, but also empowering subordinates so they feel motivated to take on additional roles. Good leaders are constantly training their replacements. This is essential for continuity of operations in any organization.
  8. Constantly evolve: This involves a combination of change acceptance and training. When we stagnate, we become obsolete. Have a growth mindset and consistently assess not only your own strengths and weaknesses, but those of your people as well.

Be the chameleon

When it comes to being a good leader, there are myriad considerations. I always tell new leaders that it’s almost impossible to know your people until you know yourself. This takes assessing your own strengths and weaknesses and then letting go of your ego so you can have an open mind.

People aren’t clones; you must connect with them on a personal level, and that means adjusting your leadership style for the person and the situation. When we are in unfamiliar territory, we gravitate toward our individual comfort zone. That means if your tendency is to be more of an autocrat, you’ll micromanage people and processes when confronted with new or unfamiliar situations. As we’ve discussed, there’s a time and place for that, but it can’t be the norm in all cases. Same thing for those of you who don’t have problems working in teams. Democracy is a great way to ensure all voices are heard; however, there’s a time when your decision should be final.

Be the chameleon your people expect and have faith in their ability to support you, even when faced with challenging situations. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch said it best: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”


1. Lewin K et al. (1939). Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created “Social Climates.” Journal of Social Psychology. 10(2).

2. Rahal A. (2022). What Makes a Great Business Leader, According to a 20-Year Serial Entrepreneur. Entrepreneur.

Click here to access the entire Leadership Development Series.

Captain Rex M. Scism (Ret) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He also had a successful military career, retiring from the Missouri Army National Guard after 20 years of service. Mr. Scism served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, and is a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and currently serves as a content developer for Lexipol.