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12 traits of effective police leaders

Effective leaders focus on developing a culture of rewards versus a culture of punishment – here is how they do it


Effective leadership has the power to make or break a department.


For most law enforcement officers, being a cop is more than just a job, it is a lifestyle and an identity. The potential for law enforcement to be a deeply rewarding career is great and, for many officers, it is. The opportunity to do good and positively influence the quality of life is gratifying and addictive. How many get to live out what is often a childhood dream?

So why then do so many law enforcement officers find themselves angry, burned out and counting down to the first opportunity to grab their pension and bail? How is low morale and disillusionment so pervasive and universally understood among cops as to almost be expected? And why – when we’ve written about these very topics – do we receive more feedback from cops, through comments and email, verifying our points and recounting their own experiences? For far too many LEOs, something happens “between their hiring and retiring.”

Although some of the problems surely lie with what is seen on the street – a public perceived as unappreciative and an unsupportive political culture – there is ample evidence that disillusionment with departmental administration and leadership is a powerful predictor of burnout and low morale among cops. Simply put, for a great many officers it is not so much the job that gets to them, but a psychologically harmful internal culture within their departments.

The Importance of Leadership

Effective leadership has the power to make or break a department. The best litmus test is to take a step back and look at those around you. Are you serving with productive and motivated cops? When someone from the leadership hierarchy approaches, how do facial expressions and body language change? Do people become closed in body posture and more defensive in their words, or do they continue to smile and invite their supervisors into the conversation? Is productivity contagious or are you in a culture of resentment and pushback?

The beauty of effective leadership is that once the skills have been mastered a team can become a well-oiled machine. It literally functions without much supervision. When ineffective leadership skills are implemented, even just by one poor leader, the entire agency is infected with low morale, anger and low productivity with increased workers compensation claims, a higher risk of injuries, and abuse of sick time.

Our Leadership Challenge

For all of you who put on the badge every day, we challenge you to accept the effective leadership challenge because you are all leaders in your communities 24 hours a day, whether on the job or at your child’s little league game. People look to you for guidance, safety, encouragement and protection.

When you arrive to begin your watch, your coworkers depend on you to be an effective leader no matter your position within the agency, from patrol all the way up to chief. Everyone has the chance to lead daily whenever you are first to arrive on a call, confronted by a citizen angry with a decision you made, or when everything’s gone sideways and people look to you to make it right.

And for those of you in a designated supervisory role, examine your own behavior and attitudes against the traits of effective leaders you follow. View your efforts with a self-critical eye, with the goal of always improving and growing subordinates professionally.

In “The 5 Levels of Leadership,” John Maxwell writes, “The bottom line is that an invitation to lead people is an invitation to make a difference. Good leadership changes individual lives. It forms teams. It builds organizations. It impacts communities. It has the potential to impact the world.”

Everyone reading this has the chance to step up and lead and our challenge to you is to do it effectively.

12 Traits of an Effective Leader

When studies are done on leadership, one thing holds true: effective leaders focus on developing a culture of rewards versus a culture of punishment. Here is how they do it.

1. Live their values: Effective leaders have a strong moral compass and have defined their values. They have a code of ethics on how to treat others and their behaviors back up their words.

2. Realize position does not define leadership: Leadership is not defined by a vertical position. Leaders who rely on their title or position to influence others just do not seem to work well with others. Leaders who lead by their hierarchal position do not lead well, according to John Maxwell, because they fail to acknowledge that leadership is about working with people.

3. Set goals for interpersonal skill development: Personal development is ongoing, just like tactical skills, throughout our lives. Effective leaders see their personality strengths and talents and continually work on making them stronger. They also identify where they are not as strong and set achievable goals for improvement such as being slow to anger (less irritable) or listening more, instead of being defensive or treating others with contempt.

4. Say “Thank You” often: Effective leaders take the time to appreciate the strengths of others with an encouraging word or gesture. Of course, it is their responsibility and expected of them to do their job and do it well, but a word of acknowledgment and gratitude goes far.

5. Admit their mistakes: Effective leaders approach their mistakes with humility instead of justification and defensiveness. This allows an organization to move forward instead of becoming stuck on blame and shame.

6. Strive to be mentors and coaches: Effective leaders believe in duplicating themselves so that others can rise up to be better leaders themselves. High-level leaders encourage the people around them to soar to their highest potential; by doing this they minimize their necessity at the most basic operational level, freeing themselves to creatively move the organization forward.

7. Accept influence: Look for opportunities to learn and grow from anyone instead of criticizing another person’s value or assuming they know it all.

8. Hold people accountable: Are able to lead in tough situations and able to negotiate conflict with authority and decisiveness without degrading another person.

9. Delegate to the expert in the room: Are able to hand over projects to the most qualified instead of letting their ego or political ambitions hurt the culture around them. A true leader knows how to follow first and then steps up to lead when there is a gap in knowledge or skill level.

10. Vision cast goals: The ability to set goals for a team or an agency that are clear and concise and done in a way that generates momentum towards productivity. Most leaders approach goal setting as a dictator rather than a vision caster. A dictator generates resentment and low morale whereas a vision caster generates excitement and buy-in of the goals.

11. Forgive: In “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” Robert Sutton writes, “Do not hold grudges after losing an argument. Instead, help the victors implement their ideas with all your might.” Imagine how the police culture would be revolutionized if we learned from mistakes instead of them being held against someone for their career. A culture of forgiveness would heal a lot of angry cops.

12. Are solution-oriented: Identifying the problem is easy. Finding a solution takes creativity and brainpower. Effective leaders do not complain, instead, they mull over the area that needs attention, involve others in brainstorming and work it over until a feasible solution is found.


True leadership is a lifestyle, not a position. Those who are effective know they are change agents and seek out to be “iron that sharpens iron.” To be an effective leader goes against human nature and definitely against standardized police culture for it takes humility, commitment and a strong work ethic on personal development. So will you rise up and accept the challenge?

The article, originally published June 2016, has been updated with current information.

Althea Olson, LCSW, and Officer Mike Wasilewski, LCSW, have been married since 1994. Althea is a social worker in private practice at Fox Bend Counseling in Oswego, Illinois. Mike works full-time as a police officer for a large suburban Chicago agency and part-time as a social worker with Fox Bend Counseling. They write on a range of topics including officer wellness, relationships, mental health, morale and ethics. Their writing led to them developing More Than A Cop, and they have traveled the country as police trainers teaching “survival skills off the street.”

Contact Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski