Leadership development series: Why adaptive leadership is imperative for law enforcement
Adaptability is a requirement at all levels of the law enforcement profession, not a luxury
This article is the sixth in a series on leadership development for new law enforcement leaders. Each article will address a specific area of leadership competency offering learning points, strategies and tips. Each article will be featured in our Leaders eNewsletter. Sign up here to receive a copy direct to your inbox.
By Al Bello, MScTRM
The nature of law enforcement has dramatically evolved in the past few decades. While maintaining law and order remains at its core, the complexity of this mandate has been significantly amplified due to a variety of factors including societal changes, technological advancements, negative sentiments about the law enforcement profession and the escalating intricacy of criminal behaviors.
It's clear that for law enforcement to meet these challenges effectively, adaptive leadership is an indispensable strategy. As we preach to our students in our Adaptive Leader training: Adaptability is a requirement at all levels of the law enforcement profession, not a luxury.
Understanding adaptive leadership
Adaptive leadership, a concept first introduced by Heifetz and Linsky from the Harvard Kennedy School, is essentially about embracing change and learning to adapt in challenging situations.  It involves the ability to recognize changes in the environment, understand their implications and respond appropriately. Unlike technical challenges that have clear solutions that can be found in existing policies, rules or practices, adaptive challenges often involve complex problems with no clear solutions, requiring leaders to learn and adapt as they navigate through them. In essence, they require innovation.
To give an applicable and relevant example, the U.S. Marine Corps establishes doctrine – an institutional-level belief and philosophy of things – in many sectors of its organization. The Marine Corps has doctrine that guides warfighting, campaigning, logistics, etc. This way of setting the foundation will always give Marines a fallback whenever there is confusion on any one issue by asking the question: "Does this align with the doctrine on X?" The reason this is relevant to the para-military structured police departments around the globe is this: The Marines have doctrine on LEARNING. Do an online search for Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 7 (MCDP-7) and you will find the Marines' philosophy and beliefs on the topic of learning. Think about it, they have a belief and philosophy on learning. Learning demands a growth mindset and breeds innovative thinking. This is built into the organization at ALL LEVELS.
The relevance of adaptive leadership in law enforcement
In the context of law enforcement, adaptive leadership involves a shift from traditional command and control models toward more flexible, responsive and network-centered approaches. This involves understanding the community's needs and values, being open to new ideas and methods, and continually learning and adapting to the evolving landscape. A key takeaway from our Adaptive Leader approach is that truly adaptive leadership should be looked at as a network, and not as a hierarchy.
Law enforcement agencies confront adaptive challenges on multiple fronts, ranging from evolving crime patterns and community expectations to the adoption of new technologies and the need to build public trust. In the face of such challenges, adaptive leadership and embracing a growth mindset are imperative.
Building an adaptive law enforcement agency
Building an adaptive law enforcement agency involves fostering a culture of learning, innovation and collaboration. It requires leaders who are not just experts in their field, but also facilitators who can guide their teams through the process of change. Agencies get the behaviors they reward, so it is imperative that in order to foster innovation, new approaches to problems and risk-taking are permitted. If those who take risks are constantly punished or judged, agencies will create risk-averse leaders.
What is your agency's philosophy on learning? If the answer is unknown, or this is the first time you've asked yourself this question, here are a few ways to trigger the change that will enable learning to be a part of your agency's "normal":
1. Encourage continuous learning: Adaptive leaders understand the importance of continuous learning in staying relevant and effective. They not only strive to update their own knowledge and skills but also create opportunities for their teams to learn and grow. They understand that every encounter or situation, whether it's a community interaction, a criminal investigation, or a crisis situation, is an opportunity to learn and improve.  The U.S. Marines excel in this environment in that they have made learning an institutional priority. They not only expect Marines to learn, but demand it. With the well-known approach of Improvise-Adapt-Overcome being at the forefront of most battlefield training, learning new ways of looking at problems sets Marines up for success.
Real-world application: What if, before anyone could be considered for promotion in your agency, there was a requirement to read the following three books:
- "Extreme Ownership" by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
- "Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek
- "The Infinite Game" by Simon Sinek
What baseline would a requirement like this create for your future leaders? In the Marine Corps, this is referred to as “Professional Military Education” or PME. It is the learning requirement for any Marine to be viewed as promotable. I submit to you that Professional Law Enforcement Education or PLEE should be a concept all police administrators put into motion.
2. Promote innovation: Adaptive leaders recognize that the traditional "we've always done it this way" approach is not sufficient in a rapidly changing environment. They encourage innovation and are open to new ideas and methods. This may involve adopting new technologies, exploring alternative policing strategies, or experimenting with new ways of engaging with the community.  In addition to this, truly adaptive leaders will accept and understand that any failures along the way are a step closer to success, and will not do anything to kill momentum.
Real-world application: We’ve all read/heard and are living through the current police recruitment and retention crisis. It seems that departments around the country can’t hire fast enough (or enough at all for that matter) to stay at proper staffing levels. Have you considered asking the youngest officer at your PD about how to use social media outside of the 20+ year platform that is Facebook? Answer this question and you’ll be a step closer to solving the recruiting crisis your PD is experiencing: “What social media platform are all the 20-26-year-olds of America on right now?” Innovate and bridge that gap.
3. Build collaborative relationships: Adaptive leadership in law enforcement also involves building strong relationships with the community and other stakeholders. This includes not just communicating effectively but also listening to different perspectives and incorporating community input into decision-making processes. It's about building trust and collaboration, which are vital in effectively responding to the complex challenges faced by law enforcement agencies.  Think of the way your organization is structured. Is it an "only leaders are at the top and driving the bus" kind of organization? Do your staff meetings include midnight shift patrol division officers from time to time? Having a pulse on the way things are perceived at the lowest levels of your organization will bring insight and much-needed perspective to adaptive leaders that are driving change. In this way, leadership can be a network and not a top-heavy "decisions come from the top" kind of structure. After all, the value of good ideas will always outweigh rank.
Real-world application: I’ll make this one easy. Relationships create resources, and resources help your mission.
Adaptive leadership is a strategic imperative for law enforcement in the 21st century. It provides a framework for navigating the complex and ever-changing landscape of law enforcement, ensuring that agencies remain effective and responsive to the communities they serve. By fostering a culture of learning, innovation and collaboration, law enforcement agencies can better meet the challenges of today and prepare for the uncertainties of tomorrow.
To learn more about Offset Consulting's Adaptive Leader training, visit www.adaptiveleadertraining.com.
1. Heifetz RA, Grashow A, Linsky M. (2009.) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Press.
2. Uhl-Bien M, Marion R, McKelvey B. (2007.) Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting Leadership from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Era. The Leadership Quarterly.
3. Anderson T. (2011.) The Leader's Role in Strategy Execution: Creating an Adaptive, High-Performing Enterprise. Leader to Leader, 2011.
4. O'Toole J. (1995.) Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology and the Tyranny of Custom. Jossey-Bass.
About the author
Al Bello, MScTRM, is the founder of Offset Consulting LLC, parent company to Offset Training Group, a veteran-owned company that focuses on culture change in law enforcement through leadership consulting and training. He is a Ph.D. Candidate in Organizational Conflict Analysis and Resolution, with a focus on training, and holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in Threat and Response Management. He is a 21-year veteran of the United State Marine Corps Reserves, during which he spent over 15 years in the infantry and retired as a Gunnery Sergeant. Al is the creator of the Gap-Free Narrative Report Writing system and Adaptive Leader Training. He has hundreds of hours of proven leadership exposure.
Al is a full-time sworn law enforcement officer and leads an intelligence section in a significantly active Chicago-bordering police agency. He is also the training coordinator for his agency. He has been a police trainer in multiple disciplines for over 15 years. Through his time in policing, Al has brought new concepts and changes that changed department-wide operations. Through his leadership, his department has been able to shift culture and achieved a change in the way operations take place. All of this is through adaptability.
POLICE1’S LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT SERIES
- Part 1: Self-awareness
- Part 2: 5 tips to improve your time management
- Part 3: Strategies to keep your ego in check
- Part 4: Using social and emotional intelligence in public safety
- Part 5: What kind of leader are you?
- Part 6: Why adaptive leadership is imperative for law enforcement
- Part 7: Understanding why police leaders succeed