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4 keys to develop police leaders of the future

Every person within our ranks is a potential star waiting to be formed, and it is never too early to start developing prospective leaders for our organizations

One of the primary responsibilities of a leader in a police organization is the development of future leaders.

Article updated on July 3, 2018

Look around at the next shift briefing and you will see a new generation of law enforcement leaders waiting to be developed. While they may not look like it just yet, they are the officers who will be entrusted with the honor and responsibility of leadership in our profession.

As they sit in their seats, taking notes on their upcoming tour, they have no idea of the future that awaits them. Nor do they recognize that efforts are being made by their current leaders to prepare them for future leadership service.

One of the primary responsibilities of a leader in a police organization is the development of future leaders. While many agencies have succession plans in place, usually those plans involve a pre-identified set of personnel that the organization believes are most likely to be successful at the next level. These officers are our organizational “stars” and have shown that they are now ready for the responsibilities of a leadership position.

Where most succession plans fail is in their long-term view of leadership development and the role that management can play to develop leaders far in advance of the succession process. Every person within our ranks is a potential star waiting to be formed, and it is never too early to start developing prospective leaders for our organizations.

How do we identify and prepare this future generation of police leaders for the challenges that await them? Here are four strategies that can be implemented to help develop future police leaders regardless of their stage of career development.

1. Goal Setting

Every future police leader should be given annual goals aimed at helping them learn and develop leadership skills. Whether these goals are assigned as part of the annual performance review process or some other skills development plan, the establishment and attainment of goals provides developmental targets that help build leadership skills.

Goal setting can involve everything from specialized training to academic instruction to individualized research on specific leadership qualities. Goal setting, when used in this manner, will help to build leadership skills incrementally and provide for progressive development of leadership knowledge.

2. Modeling

Modeling, like mentoring, illustrates a desired set of behaviors with the goal of having those behaviors replicated. Modeling differs from mentoring, however, in that mentoring is often a one-to-one exchange while modeling allows opportunities for potential leaders to see positive examples of the leadership exchange in a variety of situations with other members of the organization.

When future leaders see the positive outcomes of modeled leadership behaviors, it helps them see the practical applications of the leadership skills that they began to learn and develop during goal-setting.

3. Followership

Followership builds on the concepts of modeling and can be used in much the same manner. Every effective leader understands that their daily responsibilities include both leadership and followership roles.

A leader who doesn’t understand the value of effective followership will eventually undermine their own potential and effectiveness. Study any number of biographies of great leaders and you will see a commonality among them: Exemplary leaders do not come from weak or passive followers. Practicing effective followership is critical to the development of effective leadership skills, and also serves to bolster the understanding that each of these roles play in the leadership exchange.

4. Individualized Vision

One of the biggest impediments to the development of future leaders is that they don’t yet see themselves in a leadership role. As a result, they miss opportunities to practice and replicate effective leadership skills. One piece of advice that I often give to young officers looking to advance their careers is, “If you want to be a sergeant, act like a sergeant.”

This advice boils down to these simple points: There is no reason to wait until you are in a leadership role to practice your leadership skills. Develop that internal vision of yourself as a leader now.

Developing an individualized leadership vision results in two significant benefits for the future leader:

  • It allows those potential leaders to begin to formulate the confidence that is needed to be effective in a leadership role.
  • By actively engaging in leadership behaviors, it allows others in the organization to begin to recognize and acknowledge them as informal leaders. Thus, when the formal leadership role is a finally attained, others have already developed a positive view of their leadership skills and are more likely to affirmatively respond to their leadership efforts.


Developing new leaders within our organizations is not easy, nor should it be. Effective leadership in the police environment doesn’t just happen, and can’t just be activated upon the attainment of a leadership role.

Effective leadership is about learning, skills application, and personal development. These four strategies can help in preparing the next generation of law enforcement leaders by building and developing the skills now that they are going to need later.

Barry Reynolds is an author, speaker and public safety consultant specializing in police policy and leadership issues. He is the former founder and director of The Center for Excellence in Public Safety Leadership, and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. In addition to 31 years of experience as a law enforcement officer and supervisor, Barry also served with the Wisconsin Department of Justice as the Senior Training Officer for career development and leadership. He is a columnist on law enforcement management and leadership issues, and regular presenter at state and national conferences. Barry holds a degree in Business, and a Master of Science in Management.