What leaders can learn about officer development from Michael Jordan

It takes a team to be successful both on and off the court


This article originally appeared in the May 2022 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Forgotten LEOs | Train like a team | Keeping names off the wall and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions

A popular beverage commercial in the 1990s featured basketball legend Michael Jordan's nostalgic dunks and acrobatic moves on the court.

The advertising team capitalized on Jordan’s greatness by coining the phrase “Be Like Mike.” The commercial's jingle aimed at inspiring kids and young adults to mirror Jordan’s image so they, in turn, could be great as well. To this day, current basketball legends are still compared to Michael Jordan leading to debates as to who is the G.O.A.T. in N.B.A. basketball.

In law enforcement, similar comparisons are often made by supervisors when evaluating officers under their command. It usually involves comparing one officer with another using communication skills, appearance and attitudes as performance measures. We have all probably heard statements such as “I sure wish Officer X was more like Officer Y," or “You should be doing just as much as Officer X.” In other words, “Be Like Mike.”

Chicago Bulls’ guard Michael Jordan eyes the basket as he prepares to slam the ball through in a spectacular display of dunking talent. Jordan, for the second year, captured the slam dunk contest prior to the NBA All-Star game at Seattle’s King Dome in February 1987 in Washington.
Chicago Bulls’ guard Michael Jordan eyes the basket as he prepares to slam the ball through in a spectacular display of dunking talent. Jordan, for the second year, captured the slam dunk contest prior to the NBA All-Star game at Seattle’s King Dome in February 1987 in Washington. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Focus on your officers' skillsets

While we should be motivating our officers to perform well, we often go about the process in the wrong way. Instead of comparing officers with each other, we should focus on the skillset each individual officer brings to the table. We should encourage them to enhance those skills with more training and give them opportunities to use them.

If an officer enjoys performing self-initiated activities such as traffic stops or shows a strong interest in working cases involving impaired driving, traffic collisions and speed enforcement, then we should encourage that officer to seek out training that will make them more proficient in their jobs. This “push” can prepare them to fill vacant positions on specialized traffic enforcement units in the future.

If a patrol officer has a natural ability to investigate and solve cases, we should help guide that officer toward training to enhance their investigative and interview skills.

Some officers may be well-rounded and able to satisfactorily perform all the roles that are required of them as police officers but have a special way of interacting and engaging with adults and teenagers while out on patrol. These officers may excel in positions such as community resource officers or school resource officers.

Encourage training

We should encourage officers to seek out training. We should approve the training if it is feasible to do so, both financially and logistically. We should be open with officers as to what our expectations are if they attend the training. Do we expect more productivity from them with the new skills they’ve learned? Do we expect them to return from training and train other officers on what they’ve been taught?

If you’re not able to approve the training, explain to the officer why you can’t do so. This small gesture goes a long way toward maintaining good morale within the department.

Inspire the next generation of LEOs

When evaluating an officer’s performance, we should not compare the officer to the most experienced and productive officer on the squad. Remember that it takes a team to win. Michael Jordan didn’t win six national championships on his own, though he was the most productive statistically. The coach didn’t tell everyone in the locker room to “Be Like Mike.” Each player had a specific skill that they brought to the table, and the coach relied on each player’s skillset every day to be successful. We should seek out ways to motivate officers to become more productive and proficient on their own.

Looking back on that commercial, my takeaway is that the advertisers were not telling kids to “Be like Mike or you’ll not be successful,” rather, the intent was to inspire the younger generation to want to be great themselves. When you think about the young kids that watched those commercials and later became athletic stars themselves, I’d venture to say that it was a success. As leaders, we can learn from this logic and inspire our officers to be great as well.

NEXT: Building better officers: The importance of progression plans and rotational assignments

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