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A veteran officer’s blueprint for police leadership excellence

Lt. Dan Marcou highlights how leadership is demonstrated through both actions and words

Silhouette of a prison/police warden

Great leaders participate in training alongside their officers, showcasing the correct attitude toward continuous improvement.

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Recently, Jeff Owens, Criminal Justice Section Supervisor from Kentucky, posed a series of insightful questions to me about leadership. The questions were so engaging that I requested his permission to share my responses on Police1, to which he graciously consented.

Note: In this discussion, I address not only “supervisors” but also current and future “leaders.” Those of us experienced in the field know that not all supervisors are leaders, and not all leaders necessarily hold supervisory positions.

With that in mind, let’s begin:

Question 1: What, in your opinion, are the fundamental qualities that distinguish exceptional leaders from their peers?

During a course for new sergeants that I conducted, I posed a question to the attendees: “What qualities are essential for great leaders?” These new sergeants believed that leaders should be:

  • Honorable
  • Honest
  • Decisive
  • Fair
  • Cool under pressure
  • Great communicators
  • Duty-bound
  • A model of ethics, who “Talk the talk and walk the walk,” never saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”
  • Available and approachable
  • Self-disciplined
  • Positive-change facilitators
  • Courageous
  • Respectful
  • Accepting of responsibility for their decisions.
  • Of good character
  • Trustworthy
  • Interjecting humor into the workplace
  • Helping others live up to their potential and creating an environment that allows that to occur
  • Saying “Good Job!” when warranted and recognizing great work formally
  • Giving and accepting of positive critique
  • An expert at the job
  • A solution looking for a problem

Question 2: Throughout your career, how have you approached the challenge of balancing decisiveness with the need for collaboration and input from your team?

Decisiveness came naturally to me under exigent conditions. However, I learned to recognize when a collaborative effort was more appropriate because better outcomes often result from actions taken in a controlled and deliberate manner. We even trained specifically for collaboration in scenarios such as:

  1. High-risk vehicular stops
  2. High-risk arrests
  3. Room clearing
  4. SWAT
  5. Crowd control

For new officer collaboration: I found an ideal moment for collaboration when a new officer approached with a question, such as, “This is what I have; what should I do now?” Rather than providing a quick answer, I would encourage the officer to think through the situation by asking, “How do you think it should best be handled?”

This approach allowed the inexperienced officer to navigate the new situation with guidance, achieve success and build confidence.

For experienced officer collaboration: I discovered that seeking input from seasoned professionals during problem-solving efforts could unearth a wealth of valuable insights and sage advice. To harness this resource effectively, my chief, Edward Kondracki, trained all officers in Herman Goldstein’s SARA problem-solving model, which greatly assisted in addressing recurring problems and planning tactical situations collaboratively.

By aggressively problem-solving this deadly phenomenon, we become part of the solution

The SARA model includes:

  1. Scanning: Understanding the complete scope of the problem.
  2. Analysis: Digging deeper into the problem to learn what has been effective or ineffective in past attempts.
  3. Response: Forming a plan based on wide-ranging input and implementing it. Whenever feasible, we trained for or rehearsed the response.
  4. Assessment: After implementing the plan, we conducted a thorough debrief to enhance future plans.

Our most successful application of the SARA model was with a nine-officer volunteer problem-solving team formed to address our city’s bi-annual riots. The team, comprising four officers, four sergeants and one lieutenant — all trained in crowd control and experienced in managing riots — developed and executed a comprehensive plan that effectively ended these disturbances. The community’s response was overwhelmingly positive, and Chief Kondracki ensured that the team, not himself, received state and national recognition for this achievement.
This underscores that a collaborative leader ensures the team receives credit for successes while taking responsibility for any failures, learning from these experiences. A leader who masters collaboration will discover that every team has a latent brilliance, just waiting for the opportunity to shine.

Question 3: Can you share a specific experience from your police career where effective communication was pivotal in achieving a successful outcome?

I recall being part of a multi-jurisdictional police effort in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where I was staying at a hotel for training. By coincidence, on November 5, 2004, an active shooter chose that same hotel for his rampage.

There is no word for the feeling a cop has as he finds himself in a critical life-or-death incident, armed with nothing but an overwhelming urge to assist

As the attack commenced, I teamed up with Officer Robert Michalski, who had arrived alone. Sensing police presence, the shooter paused his attack, took an American soldier hostage and barricaded himself in a room.

Communication note: Prior to this incident, while serving as a SWAT team tactical member, I had trained as a hostage/crisis negotiator, despite not being a designated negotiator. This additional skill in communication proved invaluable.

During the early stages of our response, the killer contacted the front desk and I answered the call. I managed to convince him that he was surrounded by numerous officers, even though only three of us were actually present.

Using my negotiation skills, I not only engaged with the killer but also relayed critical information to the arriving officers through written notes. I informed them of the suspect’s location, his possession of a hostage, his previous actions and intent to kill again, and that he was armed with a 9mm UZI and a .357 Magnum revolver.

The command leaders from Oak Creek, Milwaukee and Franklin PD’s SWAT teams decided to let me continue negotiations while they secured the hotel, rescued guests, treated the wounded and strategized. Eventually, I persuaded the suspect to surrender peacefully. He was apprehended by an arrest team, found to be heavily armed and wearing body armor.

Thanks to our state’s “Unified Tactics Training,” all officers on the scene were able to communicate and collaborate effectively, despite many of us never having worked or trained together before.

I firmly believe that officers and leaders should continuously improve our communication skills — whether dealing with suspects, victims, the community or each other — to achieve what I call “black belts in dialogue.” While my martial arts skills have been useful, I have found my “black belt in dialogue” to be far more frequently needed.

Leadership is demonstrated not only through actions but also through effective communication and decisive actions.

Sometimes talk is cheap, but when a police negotiator is involved, talk can quickly become priceless

Question 4: As a leader, how do you foster a culture of continuous improvement and adaptability within your team, especially in dynamic and challenging environments?

Achieving a reputation of excellence for an agency can take just one generation of officers. Once established, this becomes the legacy of that generation. Subsequent generations are then challenged to uphold this tradition of excellence, similar to the United States Marine Corps, “New York’s Finest” and the Green Bay Packers.

Entry-level officers in such an agency should be trained to understand that maintaining this legacy requires continuous improvement in both methods and performance. This mindset, once internalized and reinforced by field training officers, supervisors and peers becomes integral to the agency’s culture of excellence.

One effective tool for ongoing improvement is training officers to self-critique each call and contact by honestly asking and answering these three questions:

  1. What did I do on that call?
  2. Why did I do it?
  3. How do I see myself the next time? (Aiming to either maintain high-quality performance or improve where possible.)

Continuous training in preparation for excellence should be as anticipated by officers as the changing seasons. Leaders should ensure high-quality trainings are directly relevant to the challenges officers will face, avoiding the inefficiency of merely checking boxes.
It is also beneficial for team and shift members to be trained as trainers, enabling them to instruct not only in the gym, classroom and on the range but also during shifts. Officers can then observe and emulate the real-world application of skills and tactics demonstrated by their trainers.

Great leaders participate in training alongside their officers, showcasing the correct attitude toward continuous improvement. It is also advisable for leaders to regularly work with officers under their command.

Remember, it takes just one generation of officers to establish a legacy of excellence for an agency, but it only takes one officer to jeopardize that legacy.

Question 5: How do you embrace continual learning as a leader?

There are numerous avenues for developing and enhancing leadership skills:

  • Example: The most significant method is by having a great leader who serves as an inspirational model for others to emulate.
  • Short courses: Brief programs lasting one or two days, such as those offered by Jim Glennon’s Calibre Press and John Bostain’s Command Presence, not only provide education but also inspire participants to pursue excellence in leadership.
  • Leadership courses: These are commonly available at most state Department of Justice Training Facilities and Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers.
  • Long leadership courses: More extensive programs, such as those offered through Northwestern University or the eleven-week National Academy at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, are also accessible.
  • College education: One officer was motivated to pursue higher education after witnessing the inadequate response of his chief to an incident where he was ambushed and shot in the line of duty. Believing he could do better, this officer earned a Master’s Degree while still serving as a police officer and eventually rose to become the chief of his department.
In 1987, Tom Weitzel was issuing a parking ticket when he was ambushed and shot by a gang member; the incident taught him the importance of standing by his officers in the best and worst of times


General George S. Patton once said, “By perseverance, study and eternal desire, any man (or woman) can become great.” I believe that with the right inspirational leadership, greatness is within reach for everyone.

You, too, can choose to embrace the challenge of leadership. This challenge requires you to shift your focus from thoughts of retirement to inspiring others. Encourage them to harbor the same desire to achieve the greatness God has endowed them with, in their noble role as “sheepdogs protecting His flock.”

Are you a great leader right now?

Here’s a way to gauge whether you have the potential to be a great leader: After reading all this, you won’t ask, “Why should I strive to help others be great?” Because at the core of great leaders, they already know; helping others achieve greatness is simply what great leaders do.

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

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.