Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

What Style of Police Leadership is Most Effective?

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Academic Director, M.S. Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

With many law enforcement professionals from the baby boomer generation now entering or approaching retirement, the next generation is being promoted into positions of leadership as the old guard retires.

At the same time, police work is undergoing significant change as those in the field continue to grapple with the challenging issues facing modern-day law enforcement — from the increasing impact of video (citizen smartphones and police body cameras) to anti-terrorism efforts and the opioid epidemic

As a part of this evolution, police leadership styles are also gradually changing, moving from the authoritative style that has largely dominated the field to a more inclusive approach that seeks to enable and empower rather than simply command.

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Today, many departments are beginning to recognize the benefits of a more inclusive, transformational approach, rather than relying solely on the more militaristic, authoritative approach that has characterized police work for so long.

Here is a quick overview of the most common police leadership styles.

Police Leadership Styles

Authoritative Police Leadership

Authoritative leadership is strictly rules-based with a preference for order and a sometimes military-like approach. In such organizations, the leader exerts full control over the team and subordinates are expected to simply follow and obey, not to offer feedback or contribute ideas. Most military and police forces have “historically followed a very authoritative model,” said former U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Ryan Sheehy, an adjunct professor in University of San Diego’s online master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership.

Transactional Police Leadership

Transactional leadership is much like authoritative leadership except that it relies on a rewards-based system to motivate subordinates. According to this system, rewards or punishments are handed out based on a subordinate’s performance and adherence to the rules. The theory is that individual officers will conform to the rules and vision of the leader — influenced by the fear of discipline for poor performance versus the anticipation of positive reinforcement for a job well done.

Transformational Police Leadership

Transformational leadership focuses on a “people-centered approach” that aims to inspire, empower and motivate one’s team. A leader following this approach works with subordinates to commit to a shared vision and goals for the organization, encouraging innovation and creativity in pursuit of those goals. Transformational leaders are inclusive, considering each individual’s unique needs, skills and motivations. They often have an “open door” policy to facilitate open communication.

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Is One Style Better Than the Other?

Authoritative and transactional police leadership styles have traditionally dominated law enforcement. However, attitudes are changing and these approaches are slowly losing their appeal in favor of transformational leadership approaches.

Of course, “there will never be a time when authoritative leadership doesn’t have a place,” said Sheehy. “There is a common misconception that one leadership style is inherently more negative or less effective than the other. But that’s not true. You need different styles for different situations and circumstances. The most important thing is recognizing the type of leadership that is required and using it appropriately.”

For example, Sheehy said that while transformational leadership can be effective in many day-to-say scenarios, “if your officers call you and say there is a guy holed up shooting, you as the leader have to switch to the authoritative role and start commanding. There is no time to talk through a situation to see how everyone is feeling.”

Ultimately, the most effective law enforcement leaders are able to quickly and accurately assess a situation and respond with the leadership style that is best suited for the given circumstance.

Since many officers who are promoted to leadership roles have made their way through the ranks in a militaristic, authoritative style department, “not everyone understands that if you are in charge and you have the strength of character and fortitude to take criticism or seek it out from someone lower in rank than you, you may be able to make a better decision, which will ultimately strengthen your authority level,” said Sheehy.

Education is the Common Thread Among the Most Effective Police Leaders

While leadership can certainly be learned over the span of a career through observation and trial and error, higher education focused on leadership can greatly accelerate that process by teaching different leadership philosophies and offering tools and strategies for employing those philosophies.

“Law enforcement is going through a major transition,” said Lt. Col. Sheehy, “and leadership is going to be a critical part of that transition.”

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Educational programs like the online master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership offered by University of San Diego can aid law enforcement professionals in developing their leadership capabilities and confidence, enabling them to become effective forces of change in an important and evolving field.

USD’s program is unique among criminal justice degrees because it examines leadership, management, organizational theory, budget and finance, and conflict resolution as they relate to law enforcement.

Aaron Stronczek, a corrections officer and student in the program, explained, “I’ve had a lot of negative leadership throughout my law enforcement career. Based on my personal experience, I wanted to make a change. I knew I needed a program that was based in leadership, but focused on law enforcement. Other universities had ‘Global Leadership’ type programs, but these did not suit what I needed as a law enforcement professional.”

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