Law Enforcement Leadership March April 2018

Mike Carpenter

 “Hey, Boss, Where Are We Going?”

There are many definitions of the word “leadership” and there are many books to read and many Web pages to click on to learn about this skill. But, let’s keep this simple and look at a very basic (but very powerful) definition of leadership which I like: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” (John C. Maxwell)

Where Are You Going?

Do you know the mission of your agency? Do you know the goals of your agency which are designed to achieve that mission? Do you see “down the road” where you want your agency or your shift or your employees to go? This is called having a “vision.”

In policing, there are many crises and problems which pop up unexpectedly on a day-to-day basis which need to be dealt with. Who has time to plan ahead for where you want to be one year from now or five years from now? Successful leaders make the time and know the importance of setting this vision. It would be the same as if you were planning a cross-country vacation with your family. You’d find the time to plan out the best route. You wouldn’t just jump in your car and start driving!

You need to know where you are going to have a successful vacation and you need to know where you are going to be a successful supervisor. Successful supervisors and managers have to know their mission (where they are going) and know the role their shift or employees play in accomplishing the mission. After all, you can’t lead your people somewhere when you don’t know where you are going. And, you have to know where you are and where your employees are right now so that you can be sure you are on the right road.

In our vacation analogy, you’d need a map, an understanding as to where you are now and a knowledge of where you want to go based in part on where are you now. In law enforcement, you need to understand your mission and the goals and objectives of your agency and you need to know how to get your employees to that destination.

Share the Vison

To gain commitment, you must share your vision with your people. You must share all that you have learned about your agency’s mission, goals and objectives (or where you want your shift or your employees to go). “Here is where we are now and here is where we are going” is a good start.

But, perhaps, some will be skeptical. You must convince them that this will be a positive and worthwhile ride. It has been said that leadership is getting others to do what you want them to do because they want to do it. Once you share your vision, they’ll think through the whole thing. Are you the one they should follow? Do you have the knowledge and experience to get them there safely? What happens when they get there?

In our vacation analogy, your family members might be asking (or thinking), “Is it worth all of the time and effort to get to that destination?”  “What do I get out of this trip?” “Do I trust the old car to get us there?” Your employees will be asking (or thinking) the same thing, “Is it worth all the time and effort to accomplish these goals or is it a waste of time?” “What’s in it for me?” “Do I trust the bosses to get us there?” “How loyal and supportive will the boss be if we follow him on this jaunt?”

It is not simply enough for you to know where you are going. Once you finally know where your agency or your shift or your employees should go, you have to develop the second component of leadership called “shared vision.” (In the definition of leadership previously mentioned, this would be “goes the way” and “shows the way.”)

What are the goals of your agency or your unit or your employees? If you can truly articulate them, then you should be able to share them with your people. They may not be entirely sure of what the goals are – or even whether, or not, there are any. It is the equivalent of not telling your family where they are going on vacation – just get in the car and let me drive! Maybe a little family involvement might help in planning the family vacation? If you let your employees share in the development and defining of their goals, they will be much more willing to share the responsibility for attaining those goals which they partially own.

To have a successful vacation, you usually need everybody to agree on the destination. At your agency, you need a commitment from your people that they will follow you to their destination. Without developing their willingness to follow you, you will merely take a car ride toward a destination which nobody knows and they may wonder where they are going and really not care when they get there.

Share the Commitment

Sharing the vision and the commitment involves…sharing. Open communication is critical to any supervisor in any agency. If you have information which will affect your unit or affect your employees, then share it with your people. When the information comes from you, at least they will be sure that they are getting the correct information, untainted by the “rumor mill” which is active in so many departments. As a supervisor, you may be among the first to learn of impending promotions, changes in assignments or a host of other information about the department and its operations. Granted, some of that information should rightfully be kept confidential, but much of it is, or will soon be, common knowledge. Through this sharing of factual information, you will build up a mutual trust over time. Then, even when your employees hear the latest “scoop” from the rumor mill, they will be more likely to come to you and say, “Hey, boss, is this true?”  That’s when you’ll know you are a successful leader.

If the sharing of day-to-day information is important, then so is the sharing of learning. “Knowledge is power,” reads an old adage. When you share what you know or have recently learned, you are sharing your power with your subordinates. Conversely, your people have knowledge they can share with you and their peers. All that is needed for this sharing to occur is the opportunity and atmosphere to do so. Take time to talk with each other, but, more importantly, take time to listen to each other.

Everyone must do their job to make the department work. The chief must get the resources from the politicians to run the department. The command staff must administer those resources effectively to keep the department on the right road. The mid-level managers must oversee a variety of units and put out any operational “fires” which crop up. The supervisors must make sure the day-to-day things get done and the officers do their jobs to fulfill their policing duties. Effective policing is a team effort. Be sure you share the effort of running the team with all of the other members and make sure that they perform their share of the work for the success of the department.

Of course, despite the importance of sharing, there are a few things which successful police supervisors should NOT share with employees. These can include strictly confidential conversations; “need to know” information; certain personnel information, including medical records or discipline matters; and rumors.

And, of course, no police supervisor should ever share failure. If your shift or your employees fail to meet its clearly defined goals, it’s solely your responsibility. After all, you are the one “driving the car.”

Having a vision, sharing that vision and developing a commitment for that vision – leadership is that simple.

Note: Police Management Services LLC is pleased to announce to the readers of P&SN that it is offering a new online supervisory training program. Successful completion will give students three continuing education units (CEUs). For more information, please visit their Web page at or you can reach them by E-mail at or by phone at (518)761-9708. Also, see their ad in this edition of P&SN.