Trending Topics

Debunking 3 myths of 21st century police leadership

21st century leadership differs from leadership practices of the past, and some of the terms associated with it are misunderstood

What is 21st century leadership? It is a body of leadership theories and practices created and adapted to the demands of the 21st century — a world of complexity, constant change and, most critically, the recognition that anyone can practice leadership (even those without the title of a leadership position). Collaborative skills are valued, as is the recognition that everyone involved in an organization (whether it be formal or not) has something of value to offer, and a leader utilizing effective leadership skills will seek to draw others into the decision-making process.

There are many terms associated with various elements of 21st century leadership traits and abilities, including: transformative leadership, servant leadership, authentic leadership, principle-centered leadership, and collaborative leadership, to name a few.

These terms refer to principles, traits, and skills which have a role in the broader context of 21st century leadership, yet none of them alone define 21st century leadership. But these terms also show us that 21st century leadership differs from leadership practices of the past: these terms do not reflect the authority of the leader over subordinates, they don’t refer to rank or position, nor do they reflect the premise that those of superior rank hold superior knowledge over those of lesser rank.

Debunking myths
To some, the traits and skills of 21st century leadership may seem “soft” and thus ineffective for some types of organizations, especially those with clear lines of authority and inherent responsibility — like law enforcement organizations.

Like the military, our rank is visible on our uniform, and in most situations everyone defers to those of higher rank. Many people in leadership positions often allow this “authority-based leadership” role to play out (whether they realize it or not) and thus “lead” from a position of authority when better expertise and ability lie with those of lower formal rank, or other position.

In coming months we will explore several aspects of 21st century leadership but, for starters, let us address three myths often associated with 21st century traits, skills and practices. These myths are associated with the concepts of servant leaders, collaborative leadership and decision making.

1. Servant leaders
First, the idea that leaders (or, rather, those in positions of leadership) state their desire to “serve” others should not be seen as reducing their level of authority — that somehow they are lowering themselves. This is not the case.

To “serve” others, simply means recognizing that an organization exists to serve a higher purpose. It recognizes that an effective organization serves every stakeholder, whether they are employees or community members. A key trait of the 21st century leader is humility. They are not afraid to verbalize their desire to serve others.

2. Collaborative leadership
Second, collaborative leadership does not mean decisions are made based on group voting or popularity of an idea. Collaborative leadership seeks to involve everyone possible in the discussion and solving of problems. A maxim to keep in mind is, “None of us are as smart as all of us.”

A leader practicing effective collaborative skills and traits will engage stakeholders at all levels involved in the discussion, seek input from those most likely to oppose the leader’s position or opinion, and be consciously willing to consider the opinions of others. But, ultimately, a decision must be made. The most effective collaborative leaders have a knack for engaging many voices, yet when needed they can prevent the discussion from going in circles and bring about a decision that reflects the group’s best ideas.

3. Decision making
The third myth is tied to the second: Group decisions cannot be allowed to be counter-productive to the mission and goals of the organizations involved in the topic. Again, collaborative decision making does not mean putting every decision up for a vote. It must be recognized that collaborative decisions cannot run counter to an agency’s responsibilities.

Ultimately, results matter. Leaders can achieve more effective results if they possess an understanding of the principles, traits, and skills of 21st century leadership. Subordinates and other stakeholders know when effective leadership is being practiced — they feel involved, respected and trusted.

John Vanek is a leadership, collaboration, and anti-human trafficking consultant and speaker working with law enforcement agencies, non-governmental and community-based organizations, academic institutions and private sector companies. John served 25 years with the San Jose Police Department (retiring in the rank of lieutenant), holds a Master of Arts in Leadership, and is an Adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Contact John Vanek