Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

What Style of Police Leadership is Most Effective?

The police force is undergoing significant change as those in the field continue to grapple with the many issues facing modern-day law enforcement. As a part of this evolution, police leadership styles are 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 command.

In a 2012 bulletin, the National Institute of Justice linked the way that organizations are managed to the way they are organized, likening law enforcement’s organizational structure to that of industrial manufacturing plants. The report noted that “as business and industry have moved away from older industrial systems built on hierarchies, traditions, and formal rules and procedures better suited to another era, police agencies in the 21st century are in need of a similar revolution in their organization, leadership and management models.”

Today, many departments are beginning to recognize the benefits of an inclusive, servant-leadership approach, distancing themselves from the more militaristic authoritative approach they have relied on for so long.

Police Leadership Styles

Authoritative Police Leadership

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Authoritative leadership is very rules based with a preference for order and a hierarchical, sometimes military-like approach. As Lt. Col. Sheehy remarked, “In the military and police force, there is the idea that by joining this organization you agree to do what you are told to do. It has historically been a very authoritative model.”

Transactional Police Leadership


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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.

Transformational Police Leadership


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Transformational leadership focuses on a “people-centered approach” that aims to inspire, empower and motivate subordinates. A leader following this approach would support his/her subordinates by constantly asking what he/she can do for them to make them more effective at their job — also known as servant leadership. Transformational leaders are inclusive, considering each individual’s unique needs, skills and motivations. They often have an “open door” policy in order to encourage dialogue and open communication.

Is One Style Better Than the Other?

Transactional and authoritative leadership has traditionally dominated law enforcement. While attitudes are changing and these approaches are slowly losing their appeal in favor of transformational and servant-leadership approaches, However, Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Sheehy, a veteran military leader who is now a teacher in the law enforcement master’s degree program at the University of San Diego, asserts that “there will never be a time when authoritative leadership doesn’t have a place.” He added, “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, let’s say you are a mid-level commander in charge of five or 10 officers who you send out on patrol every day. While they are in the field they are going to run into minor issues and need a way to communicate with you. Ideally you might follow a transformational leadership approach to help your officers deal with these minor issues by talking them through situations and helping to remove obstacles so that they can better do their job. However, 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, effective leaders are able to quickly and accurately assess a situation and respond with the leadership style that is best suited for the given circumstance.

However, when leaders choose to adhere solely to one style of leadership or take an extreme approach, the effects can be detrimental. For example, recently in California, the former police chief of the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department (LASD), Lee Baca and his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, were forced to resign after being handed criminal indictments of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, fraud, incompetence and corruption. Under their extreme authoritative/transactional leadership style, profiling and excessive force were reinforced and even rewarded, resulting in “horrific abuses in the Los Angeles jail system, the nation’s largest, which the LASD operates; in the racial profiling by LASD deputies across the Antelope Valley; in charges of fawning favoritism for celebrities but often belligerent disdain for the average citizen,” according to Newsweek.

Similarly, as many officers have made their way through the ranks in a militaristic, authoritative style department, once they are promoted to a high-ranking position of power — often after more than a decade on the force — they have only learned one style of leadership. As a result, change becomes difficult to institute and the “authority” culture continues – subordinates are expected to follow and obey their leader, not to offer feedback or contribute ideas.

“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. Humility is a major factor in whether people respect and follow you because they want to, not just because they have to” said Lt. Col. Sheehy.

Education is the Common Thread Among the Most Effective Police Leaders


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As social creatures, leadership and fellowship are embedded in almost every aspect of human life. And yet, the majority of people in supervisory or managerial roles today know very little about the psychology behind effective leadership — and have received no leadership training at all. 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 learning by bringing awareness to different leadership philosophies and offering tools and strategies for employing those philosophies.

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

The University of San Diego offers an online Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership degree program that can aid law enforcement professionals in developing their leadership capabilities to become effective forces of change in an important and evolving field. Unlike traditional criminal justice degrees, the USD master’s program focuses on a multifaceted law enforcement education that examines leadership, management, organizational theory, critical issues, community assessment, budget and finance, public safety law, and conflict resolution in addition to criminal justice topics. All courses provide real-world, skills-based learning and practical application in a 100% online format. To learn more about this unique master’s degree program contact an admissions representative.



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