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Small Unit Leadership

By Raymond E. Foster
The Use of Power

Its your first day in your assignment.  Perhaps you are a newly appointed leader, or you have been transferred into a new assignment.  How do you establish leadership?  How do you get things moving in the right direction?  You have the positional authority, the stripes or bars or whatever symbol of leadership. The position is only one type of leadership power and for the most part the weakest.

            As you study your craft, leadership, you will find that there are several types of leader power.  Many people have a difficult time with the word power; It can carry negative connotations.  Recall our first article and think of our definition of leadership The art of influencing human behavior toward organizational goals.  In the leader realm, power is the amount and type of influence the leader possesses.  First, lets define four of the power bases you can work from as a new leader and then we will explore how to combine them into a plan to jump start your leadership.

            Compensatory Power - The ability to reward team members.  Rewards can be
            praise, cash, a corner office, a title, control over schedule and priorities,
            recommendations, choice of the next assignment, promotion, or any number of
            things.  In the police service, compensatory rewards are usually recognition and
            special assignments.

            Expert Power Knowing the task, especially when you know the task better
            than the subordinate.

            Referent Power Respect of your subordinates. Usually developed when you
            have a track record of making successful decisions and you develop bonds with
            your subordinates.

            Positional Power Authority based solely on your job description.


        There are several other types of leader power, but for a jump start we are going to combine position, compensatory, expert and referent types.  Your jump start strategy begins by establishing a training program within your new unit. We are not talking about a formal training program.  You are going to use a short period of time during briefings and in the field to combine these four types of power into a leadership jump start.

Teach to Lead

            Consider that from the Kindergarten through your senior year in high school you were programmed by the state to respect the teacher as the leader.  A teacher combines the four powers to influence your behavior.  Indeed, next time you attend a training seminar watch how people react to the teacher.  Even the hardcore eventually sit down and display respect. They listen and often learn.  Teaching is perhaps the simplest way to combine multiple powerbases and jump start your leadership.

            Begin by observing your unit as they work through field problems.  For instance, imagine one of your units becomes involved in a somewhat complex felony arrest.  What you are looking for are incidents wherein your officers did an outstanding job.  You dont need to be present; you can see their good work from their arrest reports or comments from their peers.  During the next briefing, recognize them by asking them to tell the assembly about the incident.  At first, concentrate these briefings on the officers simply telling their peers about the incident.  Get them to emphasize their success and share their talent.  Compliment them and follow-up on their presentation by adding your own positive comments.  After you have done five or six of these, change the de-briefings slightly by having the officer present their incident and then ask them, Is there anything you would have done differently?  You are beginning to lead them toward de-briefing their work through self-critique. Keep these de-briefings positive.

Clues from their De-Briefing

            The officers own comments on what they would have done differently are the keys to initial training.  Tailor ten or fifteen-minute lesson plans based on their comments.  For example, if in debriefing an incident, your officers identify searching techniques as something they would have done differently, you have a training subject.  Within two or three days, while the debriefing is still fresh, hold your training.  You can hold the training in regular briefing, or alternatively, have one or two units meet you and go over the training in the field.  

            In addition to their comments, begin to note what you think they should be doing differently.  As your training progresses, add your skills, knowledge and observation to the training sessions.  After a few weeks, you should change the de-briefs again by asking the assembly to critique the officers.  What do their peers think?  What would they have done differently?  As your de-briefings progress, introduce tactical blunders from outside your agency; outside your state if possible.  Make the discussions as impersonal by removing the possibility that anyone present could have been involved.  Outline the incident and then ask your unit, What could have been done differently?  By following this formula it will take you about six weeks to get to the point where you can lead your unit through frank discussions about the their own capers, especially the ones that went side-ways.

Different Versus Wrong

            Things can always be done differently.  In police work there are often no right or wrong solutions to problems.  Moreover, people will become defensive when you tell them they were wrong.  Most people can tolerate thoughts on how to do something differently.  The critical point is to keep the discussions positive by using positive words and phrases.

Emphasis Safety

            You should consider almost always approaching any training from the standpoint of safety.  Thats right all training should have a safety component. According to a recent RAND study, the historical injury and fatality rates for police and career firefighters are approximately three times greater than the average for all professions, and place these careers in the top 15 occupations for risk of fatal occupational injury[i].  Obviously, police work is dangerous, so any training that emphasizes safety is good training. 

            Police work develops a strong safety orientated sub-culture.  Because we rely on each other for our personal safety, we reward and sanction behaviors that increase our personal safety.  This is one explanation for the code of silence.  You are simply less likely to expose a peer to administrative disapproval when you depend on that peer for your personal safety.  Personal safety may be the strongest motivating factor in changing police behavior.  If it is not the strongest, it is at the top.  You can teach any subject with a safety component.  You need only be creative to teach ethics, community policing, anger management or dispute resolution skills through the lens of personal safety.  When you do, your officers will listen and follow.

Identifying Training Needs

            There are no high-speed, low-drag, Teflon-coated tactics that will save a street cops life; there are only the basics.  Read the Federal Bureau of Investigations summary on police officers killed in the line of duty.  The basics (like searching and weapons retention) are continually among the top elements of police officer fatalities.  As your officers identify training needs through their de-briefings you should be looking for common threads.  You will see the same issues over and over. 

            Begin to keep a notebook on your training issues.  This will help you refine lesson plans throughout your career.  After ten years as a sergeant, I had 125, one-page lesson plans in four binders.  Every time I changed assignments or shifts I went back to page one and began to work through the book updating as I taught the subjects.

            In addition to jump starting your leadership role, you are also improving unit performance.  At some point you are going to begin to turn the training components over to senior unit members.  There is nothing better than a watch, or unit, that is so well run the leader need only identify which peer-group leader will be conducting the training.  Part Three will look further at the development of peer group leaders.

[i] Latourrette, Tom, D. J. Peterson, James T. Bartis, Brian A. Jackson, and Ari Houser. Protecting Emergency Responders / . Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2003

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