Trending Topics

Why police leaders should be training their replacements

The law enforcement leader who develops leadership in his/her subordinates will be promoted to carry on that practice at a higher level

Leaders can’t be created or trained as much as they can be developed. Most people have the seeds of leadership within them, but those seeds don’t germinate and grow without some nurturing and encouragement.

The military — the Marine Corps in particular — seems to do as good a job with leadership as any other organization. Even though most military types don’t see combat, any of them can, and the leadership picture can change very quickly under fire. A relatively junior and inexperienced person can find themselves the senior surviving troop — responsible for the unit, the mission, and the people junior to him or her.

For this reason among others, leaders should be encouraged to prepare their subordinates to step up and replace them, if necessary. The appointed commander will eventually move on to another assignment, and the next junior person is expected to take charge, or will assume a position of more responsibility in their next job.

Why Do Police Leaders Resist?
Law enforcement organizations should work this way, too, but they often don’t. The organizational culture in many police and sheriff’s departments exemplifies the worst characteristics of civil service. People refine their positions so they do the minimum work necessary to keep their boss off their back. The ultimate goal is to create a situation where they do little more than show up for work, collecting a paycheck and building time toward retirement.

Ambitious subordinates with ideas for new projects or ways to make things work more efficiently get frustrated with this model. Even if the subordinate does all the work, the supervisor has to expend some effort to monitor it. If it goes wrong somehow, they can look bad.

Worst of all, they could find some new task added to their workload, upsetting the balance they have worked so long to create. It’s far more preferable to maintain the status quo, never permitting anything new, and ensuring they always have more knowledge and experience than the people reporting to them.

Innovations are put off because there is no budget for them, or because other tasks have priority. The idea guys are told, “We can do that later,” but “later” is never going to come. It’s in the supervisor’s best interests to keep that new idea from ever bearing fruit.

Of course, allowing this to happen at all levels causes the organization to stagnate and become unresponsive. The bad guys have everything to gain by innovating, and the law enforcement agency that has no capability of being agile will be overwhelmed by the new challenges.

Learning from Failure
What may be an even worse consequence is that junior employees never get the opportunity to try new ideas and see what works. In agencies with this scenario, people are conditioned to color inside the lines, never experiment or innovate, and are punished if they tug on the leash or, worse yet, fail.

Almost all learning and growing requires some episodes of failure. By failing, you learn what doesn’t work, what to avoid, what you need to do better. Failure should provide the opportunity to try again — simply punishing failure conditions people to stop trying to improve.

The leader who is afraid of being replaced by a subordinate is usually just fooling themselves. Law enforcement leaders are seldom fired for incompetency or because someone below them can do a better job. They are far more likely to lose their jobs over misconduct. That is another problem that needs fixing, but in the instant case, the leader shouldn’t fail to train a subordinate to replace him out of a fear of being replaced. More likely, the leader who develops leadership in his/her subordinates will be promoted to carry on that practice at a higher level.

It’s always difficult to change a dysfunctional environment, but when the change does take place, it starts with one person. Can you be that person?

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.