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Leading from the bottom up will improve the culture of your department

As a profession, we need to begin having leadership expectations from day one of the police academy


We may not want to admit it, but if we have leadership training opportunities and expectations at the bottom of the chain-of-command pyramid, we can overcome bad leadership at the top.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Most of my articles take aim at firearm training issues. Firearms training has been my passion for over 25 years, and I’m constantly looking for ways to improve adult learning on the range and the retention of life-saving skills in those we train. I listen to podcasts on adult learning, attend classes on the psychology of learning, and try to find ways to apply that information to range training.

Most of this information is directly applicable, and in our classes, we use it to great effect. But the single best way to improve adult learning and retention is to be a good leader. As anyone who has attended our classes can attest, I believe the best firearm instructors are also great leaders. There’s no getting around this simple fact: a good teacher, coach, mentor and instructor possesses good leadership skills.

Combative Firearms Training, LLC was started in 2011 and since the first instructor course, I have included a slide during the first classroom session that states, “Arguably, the biggest problem facing law enforcement is lack of leadership.” Unfortunately, 12 years later, that slide is still as relevant as ever. It may even be more relevant today considering recent incidents that shine a light on the problems that can arise when a department lacks leadership. On the other hand, good leadership can improve a department and help prevent those types of serious problems.

Problems at the top

When we talk about leadership, we often focus on the top of the chain-of-command pyramid. Many people think about the chiefs, sheriffs, captains, majors and other high-ranking officials. We usually see these people on television after something goes terribly wrong or before elections when voters decide on funding measures or candidates. When this group is on television, I guarantee it’s bad news. When was the last time you saw a chief of police on television holding a press conference telling the community about the many positive contacts officers had with the community? I’ll wait…

It’s easy to point the finger at this group because they occupy the top positions in our departments. Since there’s only one chief of police or sheriff, they stand out. While it’s true these positions hold the ultimate positions of authority in a law enforcement agency, these people are just a symptom of a much deeper problem.

A foundational problem

As a profession, we need to begin having leadership expectations and training at entry-level positions. The vast majority of sergeants and lieutenants in law enforcement had no formal leadership training until after they were selected as supervisors. How is that possible? Why do we select new supervisors, and expect them to be some of the most influential leaders within our departments without providing leadership training and opportunities prior to promotion? How do we know what we’ll get once they’re promoted?

This is a problem with a simple solution. We should have leadership training opportunities and leadership expectations for every rank in our agencies from day one.

It shouldn’t stop there. In every police academy, there should be leadership opportunities and expectations from all cadets. Even if someone doesn’t hold a formal position of leadership, we need to have leadership expectations from every single cadet. When they pin on the badge, don the ballistic armor and fasten the duty belt around their waist for the first day on patrol, the citizens of our communities expect them to present themselves and perform as leaders. We need to have the same expectations.

Once they graduate from the academy, we need to have leadership expectations of them when they enter field training. Even in training, they look like us, dress like us and have the same responsibilities as every other officer in the department. They have the authority to use reasonable force to take people into custody without their consent, and the influence to change people’s conduct by just being present.

This is a lot of clout to ask from anyone, let alone someone between 21-29 years of age. When bad stuff happens because someone becomes badge heavy, it shouldn’t be a surprise. However, strong leadership and leadership expectations can help prevent bad behavior from occurring within our ranks. Bad behavior from one casts a stain on us all.

But it’s their fault

I know what a lot of you are thinking, “But if we had a chief who was a good leader, then we wouldn’t have these problems.” That’s a weak excuse for failing to take action where you have the most influence. During an interview with Brian Willis from Winning Mind Training, he put it very plainly, “The majority of law enforcement officers are sergeants on down. When officers, deputies, agents, constables, troopers, corporals and sergeants become the leaders and change agents of the department, it makes bad leadership at the command staff level nearly irrelevant.”

We may not want to admit it, but if we have leadership training opportunities and expectations at the bottom of the chain-of-command pyramid, we can overcome bad leadership at the top. How many of those at the top have influence over patrol briefing or training? As a matter of fact, how many of those bad leaders attend “mandatory” department training? In the 16 years I served as a sergeant, I can count on one hand the number of times the chief attended a patrol briefing. And when he did, it was a quick appearance instead of being an active participant. However, the sergeant, corporals and officers had tremendous influence on every single briefing. Strong leadership from those positions influences the quality of information, shift goals and overall attitude of the team.

As a profession, we can’t continue down the path of terrible leadership. We are in the life-saving business. Law enforcement is too important to our communities, our states, and our nations to put political drones in front of the camera when things go bad. Let’s lead from the bottom up to save our noble profession.

NEXT: The 22 leadership traits cops are looking for in their supervisors

Todd Fletcher is the owner and lead instructor for Combative Firearms Training, LLC providing training for law enforcement firearms instructors from coast to coast. He has over 25 years of training experience as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor. He retired after more than 25 years as a full-time police officer and over 31 years of law enforcement experience.

Todd is a member of the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) and the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA). He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), and was selected as the 2022 ILEETA Trainer-of-the-Year. He is also a member of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) and won the 2023 IALEFI Top Gun Award. He can be reached at