5 ways to become a more empathetic police leader

Leading with empathy will result in happier, more productive officers


When I talk to police officers, one of the things I like to remind them is that they are all leaders. And once you are the supervisor of other police officers, you must learn how to be the most effective leader possible. One way to improve your leadership ability is to increase your ability to use empathy.

In 2004, I was promoted to sergeant. Back then, there was no official orientation program for new supervisors. I was given some stripes and expected to know what to do. I was very fortunate when I arrived on my new shift with those stripes freshly added to my uniform to be assigned to a lieutenant who sat me down, gave me his expectations and explained that I would now be doing everything. “Everything?” I asked, a little concerned. “Yes, everything,” he replied. While that initially overwhelmed me, I quickly realized that by doing everything, I would be forced to learn quickly, and it prepared me for when my lieutenant was promoted, and that shift became my responsibility.

Juggling the needs of my officers, as well as the needs of my agency, has not always been easy. As a new supervisor, I was very strict and demanding of my team. I worked hard to push them to live up to my expectations and standards. Some appreciated that kind of leadership and others did not. There is a lot  I would change because now I know about the power of leading with empathy.

Never forget that you were once a fresh-faced rookie looking to change the world.
Never forget that you were once a fresh-faced rookie looking to change the world. (Photo/Police1)

What does it mean to lead with empathy? I think it means having the ability to understand another person’s emotions and using that understanding to guide your decisions as a leader. “But I am in charge and it doesn’t matter how my decisions make my employees feel!” WRONG! Your employees have the ability to make or break you as a leader. Sure, you can lead through threats and a commanding presence. However, that only works for a brief time, and it does not work as well as using empathy while leading.

Here are five ways to incorporate empathy as a leader of police officers.

1. Explain your decisions

There will be times you have to make unpopular decisions and policy changes. If you know this in advance and actually care how it will affect your team, you can tailor your message appropriately.

Caring about how those decisions and policies affect your officers is what separates a good and bad leader. If it is not an emergency, try explaining the why behind the unpopular decision. If you do not explain the why, I guarantee your officers will make up their own explanations. Make sure they get the real reason directly from you.

2. Remember where you came from

Look at your badge. Does it say sergeant, lieutenant, captain, or even chief? That sure is different from when it said officer, deputy, or trooper. With a change in title, comes changes in responsibility. Now look at the patch on your sleeve and read it. Chances are, it still says the same thing it did when you graduated from the academy. Never forget that you were once a fresh-faced rookie looking to change the world. How would the younger you respond to the order you have just given your officers?

3. Get back on the road

When is the last time you left your office and made a traffic stop or wrote a report? If that hasn't happened in years, get back on the road and make a few stops or write a simple report. Not only will you gain the respect of your officers, but you also gain a perspective that is easy to lose when working in an office. How would you as a rookie have looked at your captain if you heard him on the radio making a traffic stop?

4. Teach your department leadership program

One of the most rewarding experiences of my career has been instructing all levels of my department’s leadership training program. Our program teaches our agency’s leadership philosophy and the skills needed at each rank in the chain of command. It is amazing how open and honest the students are when they hear what we expect and compare it to what they experience on a daily basis. Those frank conversations led me to work to instill a culture of accountability in my own section. That culture of accountability works both ways. I hold the supervisors who work for me accountable and I expect them to hold me accountable. We all know what the department expects. It is up to us to make sure we live up to those expectations.

If your department does not have a leadership program, I strongly encourage you to start one. Teaching all officers your leadership strategy will lead to more buy-in and develop that culture of accountability I just mentioned.

5. know your people

In an earlier article, I encouraged police officers to show the public they care. As a leader of police officers, that tip is even more important. If you can show your officers you care, they will be happier, more productive and make the department better.

One way to show you care is to get to know your people. Take the time to talk to your officers whenever you can. Learn about their likes, dislikes and their own family. I often hear people describe their section or department as a family. If it is a family, can you remember everyone’s name without looking at their nametag? This is more difficult at a bigger agency but try anyway. Calling someone by their name when you are the boss and they are not in trouble goes a long way.

Another way to get to know your officers is by calling them into your office for a chat. Yes, they will probably be nervous the first time. Once you show that you just want to get to know them, they will be more comfortable and open up. This may make their direct supervisors nervous. Do it anyway. As a leader, you must form a relationship with the people you lead.

I am not suggesting we abandon the chain of command. There are titles and positions for a reason. However, just because your title is captain, does not mean you shouldn't care about your officers. When I was new, I was told I could not even look at my lieutenant. Now I make it a point to talk to the newest officer so he knows I am no better than he is and that I care about him as a person. Try it. You will be amazed at the responses you get.

Whether you are a brand new sergeant or a long-time chief, I hope you find these tips useful and can incorporate them into your daily routine.

NEXT: 5 ways patrol officers can revamp and reignite their empathy

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