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Leadership development series: What it takes to be the leader your officers need

If you want to build strong, trusting relationships with your officers, you need to master empathy, adaptability and integrity

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Today’s young officers are facing challenges we didn’t face and did not see coming. Have their backs, it is just that simple.

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This article is part of an ongoing series on leadership development for new law enforcement leaders. Each article addresses a specific area of leadership competency offering learning points, strategies and tips. Click here to access the entire Leadership Development Series.

In today’s fast-paced and demanding world of law enforcement, there is an undeniable need for competent leaders who can guide and support officers in their ever-changing and challenging duties.

But what exactly are officers looking for in their leaders, and how can we fulfill these expectations? This was on my mind daily, as I stepped into the new role of acting supervisor last year and now as a sergeant of a night shift. I knew what I was looking for when I was a new officer. You can read all the leadership books and go to all the classes, but you also have to put it into action!

Let’s explore the qualities that make a great leader in law enforcement and how to become the leader your officers need.

The balancing act: Finding the right mix of leadership styles

A competent leader can effectively balance multiple leadership styles, adapting to the needs of their officers and the situation at hand. Officers aren’t looking for a leader who lets them get away with things or strictly adheres to policy; instead, they want a leader who knows when to be firm, when to be empathetic and when to listen. Not just listen but hear.

The empathetic listener: Fostering open communication

Being an empathetic listener is essential for a leader in law enforcement. Officers need to feel heard and understood when they express their concerns, frustrations, or ideas. By fostering open communication, you can create an environment where officers feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, ultimately leading to better problem-solving, collaboration and decision-making. Being a member of the Peer Support Team, I allow a lot of blowing off steam and voicing of frustrations in conversations with officers. I do not take it personally. Your officers need to be able to be honest with you and sometimes that honesty might sting your ego a bit. GET OVER IT!

The policy navigator: Knowing when to stick to the rules

While it’s important to be flexible and understanding, a competent leader also knows when to adhere to department policies and procedures. A good leader recognizes the importance of following rules and guidelines to maintain a safe and effective work environment. However, they should also be willing to reevaluate policies when necessary and advocate for change if it benefits the officers and the department.

A great book we were required to read for the promotional process was called “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy” by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff. He demonstrates that when team members feel they have a say in the decision-making process and are trusted to take initiative, they take greater ownership of their work and its outcomes. This sense of ownership then translates into higher levels of engagement, innovation and productivity.

The inspirational motivator: Leading with passion and purpose

A great leader in law enforcement is someone who can inspire and motivate officers to perform their best. By leading with passion, purpose and a clear vision, you can inspire your team to strive for excellence in their work, ultimately creating a more effective and cohesive department. I know sometimes this is not an easy task. We all have not-so-great days and we make mistakes. (Yes, leaders, we make mistakes.) It’s OK, own them, apologize and move on. This builds trust with your squad faster than you would believe. And remember, you will not be able to motivate every person on your squad, it is just that simple. Meet them at the level they are at and continue to be there for them.

The supportive mentor: Encouraging professional growth and development

Officers are looking for leaders who will support their professional growth and development. By providing ongoing training, mentorship and opportunities for advancement, you can demonstrate your commitment to the success of your officers and help them reach their full potential. It’s not about you anymore, it is about them. What do they want? Where do they see themselves in 3 years, 5 years, 10 years? Help them get there. When I took part in the sergeant’s promotional process, a few of the other people taking part were some of my trainees from my FTO days. That was an amazing feeling, knowing I had a small role in their path to the process.

The fair and just decision-maker: Upholding integrity and accountability

Law enforcement leaders must uphold the highest levels of integrity and accountability in their decision-making. By being fair, transparent and consistent in your actions, you can build trust and respect within your department, ultimately fostering a positive work environment. Leave friendships at home. Your former squad mates are now your responsibility to lead but so are the others. NEVER allow friendships to make decisions for your people. Everyone sees right through that.

Candid feedback from officers in Police1’s State of the Industry survey highlights actionable steps supervisors can take to create a culture where officers feel valued and supported

The adaptive tactician: Responding to change and challenges

In the ever-evolving world of law enforcement, competent leaders must be able to adapt to change and tackle challenges head-on. By being proactive, flexible and innovative, you can guide your officers through difficult situations and ensure the continued success of your department. Today’s young officers are facing challenges we didn’t face and did not see coming. Have their backs, it is just that simple.

The need for competent leaders in law enforcement is understandable, given the ever-changing, challenging and high-stakes nature of the job. Officers are looking for leaders who can balance various leadership styles, listen empathetically, navigate policies, inspire motivation, support professional growth, uphold integrity and adapt to change. By embodying these qualities, you can become the leader that law enforcement officers need and deserve, ultimately creating a more effective and unified squad and department.

Leadership in action

Here are some actionable steps to transform your leadership:

  • Implement regular feedback sessions: Schedule and conduct regular one-on-one meetings with officers to provide a space for open dialogue, feedback, and to genuinely understand their career aspirations, concerns and feedback.
  • Develop a Leadership Training Program: Create or enhance a leadership training program focused on the development of empathy, adaptability and effective communication skills. Encourage both current and aspiring leaders to participate.
  • Establish a peer support system: Initiate a peer support program that emphasizes emotional well-being, stress management, and creates a culture of support and understanding within the department.
  • Promote policy understanding and flexibility: Review current policies with the team to ensure they are well understood. Open discussions for potential policy adaptations that could benefit the team’s effectiveness and morale, demonstrating a balance between rule adherence and flexibility.
  • Create a recognition and development initiative: Launch an initiative that recognizes exemplary leadership and teamwork within the department. Include opportunities for professional development, such as workshops, seminars and mentorship programs, to encourage continuous growth and learning.

NEXT: Policing Matters host Jim Dudley speaks with Bill Fraass about leadership development. Listen to the entire episode here.

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Amy Perez has been a sworn police officer for 19 years. She currently serves as a sergeant on Night Watch Bravo at a Florida police department. She is deeply involved in mental health and crisis intervention, serving as a co-leader of the Critical Incident Stress Management and Peer Support Teams. She has extensive training in Crisis Negotiations (CNU), Critical Incidents (CIT) and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), showcasing a strong commitment to the wellbeing of officers and the public.

Sergeant Perez holds a bachelor’s degree in administration and is currently working toward a master’s degree in organizational leadership. She lives in central Florida surrounded by her family and animals.