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Being the Best Police Leader

Heather Prince

    What does it take to be the best police leader? I don't know, and I would be suspicious of anyone who claims that they have all of the answers. Leadership is a journey that everyone navigates slightly differently. I am writing this blog to show you how I used research to be more effective as a leader.

    It was 2012 when I first tested to become a police supervisor. I knew that I wanted to become a leader, but I certainly didn't know what exactly that meant. In June 2014, I got the call from my chief that he was promoting me to the rank of sergeant. I had never been so excited and nervous at the same time. I was excited about the challenge but worried because it was at that moment that I realized that I was now responsible for so many things. I was responsible for my officers' work product, their safety, morale, motivation, satisfaction, and development. I was now responsible for getting officers to believe in the organization's mission and vision and ensuring they treated everyone they encountered with respect and dignity. All while working towards providing the citizens with the best possible law enforcement services. It was at that moment I asked myself, "how in the world am I going to do that?" This question started my leadership journey towards seeking evidence-based practices to assist me in being a successful leader. 

    There are all kinds of leaders in law enforcement. We have leaders who won't let you make decisions, and we have leaders who won't make decisions. We have leaders who care about us and some that don't. We have leaders who will communicate with you and some that don't. Law enforcement has some great leaders, weak leaders, and everything in between. Initially, I thought I had to find a way to become like some of the leaders I had in the past to become just like them. The problem is, I quickly realized that I don't have some of the same personality traits that they have. So, I started thinking about some of the things I liked about different leaders that I had in the past, and I quickly realized a consistent behavior that I appreciated in a leader. I realized that I did my best work and was happiest when the leader cared about me. Not just me as a police officer, but they valued me as a person. So, I committed myself to care about each follower of mine as people. Caring for them as police officers and building individual relationships based on getting to know each one of them personally. 

    Shortly after being promoted, I found out I needed to learn more about leadership to become a better leader. I learned leadership in the real world. This where I struggled to see myself fitting inside some leadership theories "box." Leadership theories I learned in the International Association of Chiefs of Police's (IACP) Leadership in Police Organization's class. I couldn't just become a transformational leader or a transactional leader. That's when I came across two concepts that connected with me; those concepts were authentic leadership and emotional intelligence. I read the book Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman that talks about emotional intelligence as a skill that's modifiable upon and something that can help to build relationships with individuals and groups.

    Goleman breaks down emotional intelligence into four distinct domains that include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social management. In short, emotional intelligence is a person's ability to recognize, understand, manage, and reason with emotions. In his book, Goleman explains that emotional intelligence could be more important than IQ. People who score high on emotional intelligence tests also tend to score higher on their interpersonal functioning, leadership abilities, and stress management. I knew right away; this concept was what I was looking for because I wanted to learn how to improve my interpersonal skills as well as my leadership skills. The problem was, I still didn't know what that meant for me as an individual. Luckily, in my academic life, I started to learn about the concept of authentic leadership. Avolio and Garnder (2005) explained that authentic leadership is about leaders who are deeply aware of how they think and behave as well as how others perceive them. They are aware of their morals and values and have integrity in all that they do. The concepts of emotional intelligence and authentic leadership are a perfect match for each other. To be aware of your behaviors, thought processes, morals, and how others perceive you, you must be self-aware! After coming to this realization, I knew that I had to become more self-aware. Exhibiting these soft skills will not fit into another person's ideal leadership box. To increase my self-awareness, I started a strategy of taking time during my 25-minute ride home every day to reflect on the interactions I had during the day. Utilizing this skill helps me think about ways I can be more productive. That strategy has led me to become more knowledgeable about myself as a leader and to build better relationships with my followers and co-workers. 

    Emotional intelligence can have multiple effects on the life of a police officer outside of the benefits for police leaders. Research into emotional intelligence and its effect on policing is limited, however, Brunetto, Teo, Shacklock, and Farr-Wharton (2012) conducted a study to examine how emotional intelligence effects police officers’ job satisfaction, well-being, engagement and in turn, their perception of organizational commitment and turnover intentions. The study conducted by Brunetto et al. (2012) had multiple findings. First, it found that emotional intelligence “predicted police officers’ perceptions of well-being and job satisfaction, which influenced engagement and affecting commitment and, subsequently, negatively affected turnover intentions” (436). As officer well-being has become a major topic for law enforcement lately, this is a major finding that could be used to enhance officer wellness through emotional intelligence training. Additionally, police officers face many stressful situations on a daily basis and according to Mayer and Salovey (1997), higher emotional intelligence leads to having the ability to regulate one’s external behavior to appear appropriate to the circumstances to include negative situations. As leaders within our organizations, we should be working towards becoming more self-aware and in turn, authentic in our leadership. But we should also work towards increasing our officers’ self-awareness in an effort to handle negative situations better and to increase their own well-being. 

    Leading police officers in the 21st Century isn't about having all of the answers and knowing every single policy verbatim. It's about building relationships with your followers and caring about them as people, not just police officers. Staying true to yourself and your personality traits will gain the respect of your followers and provide them with the desire to follow you as a leader. It will create a comfortable environment where they are willing to share their thoughts and innovations that make the workplace somewhere that they don't despise going. To be a leader in the 21st Century, become self-aware and stay true to who you are. 

Lieutenant Mike Thomas is a 16-year veteran of the Norfolk Police Department and the current Officer in Charge of the department’s Special Crimes Unit.  Currently, Lt. Thomas sits on several multi-disciplinary teams including the Norfolk Criminal Justice System’s Evidence Based Decision Making Group, Norfolk Police Department Evidence Based Decision Making Group, Norfolk Sexual Assault and Domestic Assault Response Team, and the Norfolk Family Justice Center Workgroup. Lt. Thomas holds a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from Saint Leo University, a Master of Science in Criminal Justice from Saint Leo University, and is a Doctoral Candidate at Regent University studying Organizational Leadership and Human Resource Development. Lt. Thomas is an instructor for IACP’s Leadership in Police Organizations course and is a Trilogy Award recipient after attending FBI-LEEDA’s Supervisor Leadership Institute, Command Leadership Institute, and Executive Leadership Institute. He has conducted multiple research projects within the Norfolk Police Department related to servant leadership, emotional intelligence, police leader burnout, and learning organizations. In 2019, Lt. Thomas was selected to become an NIJ LEADS Scholar. 
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