Far too often it seems that titles, stripes or shiny bars bring forth de facto leadership within our law enforcement organizations. However, this idea couldn’t be farther from the truth. A supervisor is just that; a person who supervises or manages people and their activities. Law enforcement organizations have plenty of supervisors. They may be your corporals, your sergeants, your lieutenants, your captains and so forth. But does your law enforcement organization—your department—have any leaders? If your department has effective leaders, great, I am sure you are aware of the positivity and success that they bring to your organization. If your department does not have effective leaders—or no leaders at all for that matter—be cautious and watch closely, because that can be dangerous for an organization. Leaderless police departments are often found plagued with crippling low morale, troubled officers and numerous complaints from the public.
Law enforcement supervisors are necessary in operating a department and its functions. Effective law enforcement leaders are absolutely vital in whether or not that same department operates effectively. Let’s not forget, we’re in a service industry. We don’t manufacture any goods, we don’t necessarily make our employers money and we’re not profit-based. We do, however, provide value to the communities we serve. Whatever definition of service you come up with doesn’t necessarily matter; the fact is that we all serve. What level of service can we as law enforcement officers provide if we are only managed and supervised by those who solely place emphasis on controlling procedure or scheduling a work force to limit overtime?
In comes the leader—he or she may be your supervisor or your peer. Here’s a scary thought: The sole leader may be your chief of police. It doesn’t matter who the leader is. What matters is if they can positively influence a workforce to go out and do great things and to serve successfully. I’m not here to debate the abundance of leadership styles, especially in the law enforcement business. I believe we all understand that police work and police organizations are a paramilitary business. We take our orders from those senior in rank or time, and we carry out those orders to the best of our ability often without question. Every situation is different and every situation should dictate which leadership style be used most effectively. We hope, at least, an effective leader can do exactly that in assessing a situation and responding with an effective leadership style. You don’t need rank and you don’t need titles to be an effective leader. What you need is the will to positively influence others and set the example for others to follow.
My advice to that fresh-caught rookie from the academy is to educate yourself on effective leadership and gravitate toward those who possess great leadership traits that you will be working with. It is in this way that you will only become more successful. My advice to the supervisor with stripes or bars on your collar is to take a moment to truly realize the influence you have on subordinates and know that you can make a positive impact in their life and career. This will only help the greater mission in providing effective law enforcement services. Lastly, my advice to you, the big dog, the head honcho, the officer in charge-chief of police, sheriff, director, colonel, the person that the buck stops at is you are at the top and you have absolute influence over all that you command. It begins with you and ends with you. You must take responsibility when times are good and when times are bad. Understand that taking no action or providing no leadership is the single most destructive behavior that you can display — your command and those under you will suffer from it. Leaders don’t know it all, but an effective leader certainly will know what they do not know, and that inspires the truest respect. If you’re not up to the leadership task, be responsible enough to admit it and walk away. Let a real leader step in, before someone you supposedly “lead” gets hurt or killed. In our line of work, the stakes are too high for ineffective or absent leadership.
Chris Scilingo is a police officer in NJ since 2011. He’s a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is near completing his bachelor’s degree at Fairleigh Dickson University; where he also plans to pursue a master’s degree. Chris aspires to teach higher education after transitioning from law enforcement.