Trending Topics

Why leadership in law enforcement is not about rank

Given the choice between spending your career as a problem identifier or a problem solver, choose to be a problem solver


The most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that everyone in an organization is in a position to lead.


Article updated on August 22, 2017.

I was 22 years old when I started my law enforcement career. I had a great deal to learn about life, about being a police officer and about leadership.

Like a lot of people I thought leadership was about rank, title and position in an organization. I thought that the leaders of the organization were the Sergeant, Inspectors, Lieutenants, Captains, Superintendents and Chiefs.

Over the years, I learned many valuable lessons about leadership in policing. I learned that leadership is not about rank, position or title. Leadership is about action and interaction. Leadership is about doing what’s right, not what’s popular. Leadership is about doing what’s right, not what’s expedient. Perhaps most the most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that everyone in an organization is in a position to lead.

Throughout my police career I observed, and at times participated in, the continual and excessive complaining and finger pointing. I have seen too many officers get caught up in the blame game where instead of looking for solutions, they are continually looking for someone to blame. As cops we often spend a great deal of time and energy complaining.

We complain about:

  • The ‘lack of leadership’ at the top of the organization;
  • The ‘fact’ we have too many managers and not enough leaders, yet few can actually explain what they mean by that;
  • The fact that we do not get enough training, and then we complain when we get assigned to attend training;
  • The equipment we have, the equipment we used to have and the equipment we should have;
  • The vehicles we are assigned, how the equipment is laid out in them, and how no one takes responsibility for keeping them clean;
  • The facilities or lack thereof;
  • The citizens who don’t appreciate us;
  • The justice system;
  • The cops on the other shifts;
  • Patrol officers complain about the specialty units and the specialty units complain about the patrol officers;
  • And, of course, we complain about the shift schedule.

The point of this article is to encourage you to take the first step toward being a leader. Step away from the blame game, stop pointing fingers and stop waiting for someone else to take action.

It is important throughout your police career to focus on what you can control. Focus on what you can do to make a difference. Accept the fact that regardless of your position in your organization, you are in a position to train yourself and others and to make a difference.

It’s been my experience that many of the major changes in organizations started at the grass roots level. These significant changes are bottom-up driven, not top-down driven. Police officers in the field know what works and what does not. They know what they need for equipment and training. They know what needs to be done at a particular call to make it safer for the people that are there. They know because they are there. They know because they are at the pointy end of the stick. They know because they do the job every day. The ones that understand leadership take action to initiate change.

Stepping Up and Speaking Up

I have learned that leadership is about stepping up and speaking up. If you are at a call and you see something is not going right then be a leader and speak up. You may have seen something others did not and your willingness to take action and speak up may save a life.

If you are a supervisor or a senior officer on a shift, encourage younger officers to speak up at debriefings and at calls when they see something that is dangerous or something that can be improved. The junior person on the shift may not have years of experience (although you may be surprised at the experience they do have), but in many cases the most junior people have the most up to date training.

Now, lets be very clear, I am not advocating questioning every decision the sergeant makes or continually challenging your senior partner because you think he or she is a dinosaur. Being a leader is about knowing when to step up, when to speak up and when to shut up.

If you see something that could be improved in your agency put together an action plan with potential solutions and put it forward to someone who has the authority to approve it or is willing to take it to higher levels for approval. If you see a gap in training then do some research and put forward some possible solutions on how those gaps might be filled. Better yet, get involved as a trainer for your organization.

It is important to remember that no one buys anything (cars, houses, your proposals) based on why it is important to you. Learn to step back and put yourself in the other person’s position, then sell it to them based on why it is important to them. I would also encourage you to read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

Remember to be Patient

Change does not happen overnight. Some of the changes I had the pleasure of being involved in orchestrating took years to bring to fruition.

A few months ago I spent some time on the phone with a leader and trainer I have a great amount of respect and admiration for. She works in an emergency services communications centre and is continually attending courses and seminars at her own expense to expand her knowledge and skills. She then takes what she learned and shares it with her co-workers. She has been working tirelessly for more than a year to change the culture of negativity that was becoming pervasive in her workplace and after all this time she is making headway. She is a leader not because of her title, but because of her actions and she is making an impact on the culture of the organization.

I wish I had known at the start of my career that everyone is in a position to:

  • Lead;
  • Train others;
  • Make a difference.

Now, here are the two questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. What’s Important Now?
  2. Are you are going to choose to lead?

Given the choice between spending your career as a problem identifier or a problem solver, choose to be a problem solver. Choose to be a leader.

Brian Willis is an internationally-recognized thought leader, speaker, trainer, and writer. Brian serves as the Deputy Executive Director for the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and is President of the training company Winning Mind Training. Brian was a full time police officer with the Calgary Police Service from 1979 to 2004. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his contribution and commitment to Officer Safety in Canada and was named Law Officer Trainer of the Year for 2011.
What’s even more special is that these gifts help support the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund
There are some incredible products available to make your favorite law enforcement officer’s work life a lot easier and more comfortable
Always be prepared for questions about your agency’s traffic stop responses, policy and patrol officer training
Follow these six strategies to ensure your department’s scenario training doesn’t result in undesirable side-effects