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— Nancy Perry
Editor-in-Chief, Police1
5 steps to future-proof police leadership training
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. 

Let’s look back 10 years to 2012. A fresh supervisor attends a leadership course. Over the next decade, that leader encounters increasing personal and political hostility to law enforcement, a pandemic, civil unrest, generational and situational roadblocks to recruitment and retention, implementation of body-worn cameras, and conflicting needs for officer safety while improving relationships with the public. Our supervisor is now likely just a few years from retirement eligibility and may have added another stripe or bar to their uniform.

Now let’s look back on that leadership class outline and handouts. Did that course prepare our leader for the next decade? What can we do to engrain and refresh the lasting principles from our legacy leadership training while recognizing inevitable changes that need attention in contemporary training?

Here are five steps to future-proof law enforcement leadership training.

1. Leaders need brain-based training

Psychology and counseling principles have been part of leadership training for a long time, but our increasing knowledge about brain function can inform policing much more deeply. The effects of stress, nutrition and overall wellness are now well documented and must be addressed for the efficiency and longevity of our police officers. Critical research on the capacity of the mind and body to operate under rapidly changing conditions must become common knowledge among police leaders, as well as prosecutors and judges.

Police1 resource: Improving police decision-making under stress

2. Leaders must be technologically literate

Change used to come in great leaps – for example, the radio for police cars in the 1930s, the appearance of DNA’s role in investigations in the 1980s and dash cams in the 1990s. Now technologies that become essential change with such rapidity that sometimes agency acquisition processes approve a purchase that has already become obsolete. Knowing what technology has real value and longevity and how it can be integrated into existing systems is complex. Not to mention advances in consumer technology used by offenders more frequently leaving digital fingerprints as well as physical ones.

Police1 resource: 6 action items that should be part of every police department's technology strategy

3. Training must use sound principles of education theory

One of the things we do know about the brain is how humans learn and retain information. Leadership training, as well as all other pre-service and continuing education, must be maximized using these principles. That includes learning that incorporates multiple senses, attaches to the learner’s experience and existing knowledge, social and emotional engagement, and application through practice and repetition. The art of collaboration encompasses many of these principles but is sorely lacking in the training and experience of police officers whose patrol skills are necessarily independence and coercion, which gets carried into leadership styles rather than collaboration.

Police1 resource: How teaching styles impact the success of today's police recruits

4. Leadership principles should be embedded in agency culture

One of the law enforcement agencies I have visited is the Reno (Nevada) Police Department. Reno is noted for developing a police field training program for new officers focusing on problem-solving. Everyone I spoke with knew the principles of the program, as well as its theoretical underpinning. Too often a project of a leader or team gets isolated from others in a police department. Or a leader comes back inspired from a training course and wants to implement changes with little regard for the complexities of culture, tradition and resources of the department.

Police1 resource: 5 steps to begin leading transformational change in your agency

5. Leaders must learn to focus

Lou Holtz famously said that the secret to his successful coaching was asking the question “What’s important now?” In the scramble to accommodate political pressures, develop relevant training, and placate a restless and fearful public, it is a challenge to bring all of our efforts under one umbrella. But we must focus on our core mission and measure all of our programs, budgets and training against it.

Police1 resource: Police1’s 30-day leadership challenge

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Leaders, find the time in your day for those who matter most
By Jonni Redick 

Every industry, especially policing, is trying to figure out the silver bullet for recruitment and retention.

Last year, we read about the scathing exit interviews Portland officers had left the Portland Police Bureau. The statement made by Assistant Chief Mike Frome, who oversees the bureau’s Personnel Division, is one I've heard many times in hindsight: “Police leaders need to do a better job in letting our officers know they’re appreciated, that we are constantly trying to advocate for them and make them feel wanted,” Frome said, recognizing there were times when it became too easy to get “caught up in the minutia of my job” and “forget about the people that were doing the work every day.”

If we could only pause in the moment and not forget about the people who are doing the work, what a difference we would make in our organizations and for our people.

Building leadership

A few months ago, I observed a first-line supervisor leadership training course. 

Like any good observer, I wanted to blend in as a student, so I took a seat in the back row. The 40-plus attendees were from various allied law enforcement agencies in the region, with the majority from the host sheriff’s department agency. The training was unique because most of the local agency staff in attendance had not been promoted to supervisor yet as their test was upcoming a few weeks later.

Due to COVID-19 distancing requirements, the tables could only seat two people with a chair in between us. The room was large; I figured I'd have the entire table to myself. As the room was filling up, a young woman set her purse and other materials on the table and greeted me. We exchanged brief hellos as the class was getting close to starting.

I asked her if she had been promoted already, and she told me she would be taking the test in a few weeks. She continued by sharing how she had been with the agency for over 15 years. They had never offered this type of training to anyone unless they were already a supervisor, so she jumped on the opportunity, as did several others in the room. I commend the organization on investment toward building leadership without the titles.

As we chatted over the next several days, she shared how she appreciated the training on leadership because discussions with her supervisors or managers were usually very task-oriented or performance-based relative to the daily grind. In addition, she appreciated the forum to share her thoughts and work in small groups with peers she had never met in her own organization, which has over 1,400 sworn members.

By the end of the week, I had spoken to several of the attendees. I took the opportunity to lean in, listen and share what knowledge and experience I had to offer as they prepared for their promotional exams and leadership journeys. They also had a few things they needed to vent about regarding their overall frustrations within their agency.

The right attention

On the last day of the class, I was surprised when the young woman gave me a small bag along with a card. As I looked in the bag, it appeared to be something fuzzy, so I began to reach in to take it out when she stopped me. "It's very prickly so you need to be careful," she said. More curious now, I reached in and pulled out a small cactus. She told me that after I read the card, I would better understand the gift:

I am very thankful to have met you this week. You have already inspired me to work harder for myself and become a better leader in my community. Thank you for taking the time to listen, advise and mentor me through this major turning point in my life. I would like you to have this Ladyfinger cactus because it lives in harsh conditions but blooms when given the right attention. Very few people have taken the time and effort to give me the attention you gave me. Even fewer people are willing to give so much of themselves. Thank you!

I share this experience often as it was just as rewarding for me. It made me think of Dr. Seuss's quote, “To the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world.”

So, here’s a leadership consideration, what if you did not wait until something has "already happened"? What if instead, in those unprovoked, unplanned and priceless moments with your people, which you have every single day, you initiate conversations and opportunities for interaction?

Remember to take time to be intentional and ask questions with curiosity to get to know your officers better. And then, quite possibly, you might learn, inspire, motivate, restore trust and retain through these very small acts of leadership. Sometimes the small things are the things that matter most.

NEXT: What support do officers need to perform at their peak?

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