Police Leadership Research Paper

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Leadership is of central importance to the operation of effective, efficient, and equitable police organizations, yet it remains an elusive concept. It is clear that good leadership is vital to ensure that an agency operates in a manner that preserves public legitimacy and trust. Among the compelling evidence in support of this assertion is the fact that a crisis of leadership is often associated with major scandals in police agencies. Despite recognizing that strong leadership is of vital importance, scholars and police organizations have struggled to measure and understand a number of key questions, including what leadership styles are commonly used by police supervisors, when and how supervisors can influence subordinate performance and output, and what distinguishes between effective and less effective leaders.

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This research paper considers the topic of police leadership styles. Literature considering leadership in police organizations can be separated into two major approaches. First, some write about how general theories of leadership and organizational behavior might be used to explain aspects of police organizations (Adlam and Villiers 2003). This is often the approach taken in textbooks and professional literature. The second approach examines the styles and methods supervisors use in seeking to influence subordinate personnel (Engel 2001). The paper begins by briefly reviewing the dominant implications arising from these two traditions. It continues with an examination of what research evidence suggests about the ability of police leaders to influence unit productivity and output. The paper concludes by considering how different generations of police personnel and leaders might respond to different styles of leadership.


At the onset it is important to distinguish between police management and police leadership. Police supervisors are often interchangeably referred to as managers and leaders. Management is the control of routine processes and the maintenance of the status quo. Leadership emphasizes changes that will improve processes, personnel, and organizations. Effective supervisors tend to excel at both management and leadership, because both skill sets are important. However, they are not of the same quality, and policing has tended to emphasize management far more than leadership to its own detriment. It should also be noted that leadership is a behavior that can be independent of formal rank or authority. Some very prominent and influential leaders in police organizations are front-line personnel. Much of what has been written about police “leadership” is actually describing aspects of managing, administering, and supervising police organizations and personnel.

The emphasis of this research paper is on true leadership, not what is often described in policing literature (including academic scholarship, which has tended to confuse management and leadership). Leaders innovate, take calculated (and often necessarily) risks, encourage and develop personnel, and are willing to challenge tradition and status quo. This does not imply that leaders blindly challenge anything, everything, and everyone in the organization. Rather, they have the courage to confront the pointless, mindless, counterproductive aspects of their organizations and its practices. This tendency is sorely lacking in many aspects of the modern public sector, particularly policing.

Though much has been written about leadership in broader settings, especially in corporate, military, political, and athletic contexts, policing scholars have given limited empirical consideration to matters of leaders and leadership. The traditional perspective found in police literature tends to cast leaders as using a narrow range of directive and controlling styles; as a consequence, supervisor-subordinate relationships are characterized by tension and animosity (Rowe 2006; Van Maanen 1984). More recently, research evidence has suggested an alternative perspective. Leaders have increasingly been framed as using a range of styles and approaches when interacting with those they seek to influence. These clusters of leadership approaches go beyond the traditional, authoritarian, and autocratic supervisory approaches that once dominated policing (Kuykendall and Unsinger 1982). It is quite likely this change reflects a very real transformation in leadership styles observed in policing.

Major Theories Relevant To Police Leadership

A wide array of theories has been offered to describe and explain the behavior of individuals and organizations. Some of the earliest studies of leaders and leadership tended to focus on the “great man/great woman” tradition. Wellregarded leaders were studied in a biographical format in the hope of deriving an understanding of the behaviors and actions that contributed to their perceived success. Over time, studies expanded this tradition by examining samples of recognized leaders. Modern research continues to seek an understanding of the casual links between leader traits and subsequent efficacy; what characteristics, habits, and behaviors differentiate leaders who are most effective from their peers?

Because early studies were concerned with the traits and habits of leaders, they tended to pay less attention to followers. The latter were often seen as liabilities and risks that organizations and supervisors needed to manage through control, policy, procedure, reporting requirements, and similar of mechanisms. This was based on what Douglas McGregor (1960) referred to as Theory X assumptions, and it led to a very distinctive, controlling, directive form of management. In contrast, McGregor described Theory Y approaches that were predicated on the belief that people can achieve good work outcomes when they are given the proper motivation and environment. As a result, Theory Y management approaches emphasize creating the optimal environment in which employees can be engaged and empowered, rather than seeking to regulate and constrain their choices and behavior.

James Burns observed a similar duality in the nature of leader-follower interactions, writing about “transactional” and “transformational” approaches to leadership (1978). Transactional leaders were seen as emphasizing exchanges and quid pro quo arrangements with the personnel they supervised. Followers were provided with an understanding of what they were to accomplish and how it was to be achieved; they also understood what they would receive for adhering to those expectations and the consequences of violating accepted practices. The role of leaders in such arrangements was not to provide leadership; in actuality, they were there to monitor and manage followers, grant rewards when earned, and issue discipline when needed. Followers were given “carrots” (rewards) for good behavior and faced the risks of “sticks” (punishments) if they did not produce the expected outcomes in the expected way.

In contrast, transformational leadership was characterized as a process of seeking to improve organizations, operations, and personnel. Leaders truly lead rather than just managing and maintaining the status quo. To accomplish this outcome, transformational leaders sought to inspire employees to embrace a shared vision and empowered them to use discretion and creativity in the pursuit of that outcome. Followers were given the freedom to make choices, the authority to develop new ideas, and the independence to identify and implement ways to pursue the leader’s vision. In other words, followers were viewed as being smart enough and creative enough to be entrusted to solve problems, pursue new ideas, and act in a way that was consistent with the vision of the leader. This was done without requiring followers to engage in burdensome reporting requirements, bureaucratic permission seeking, and mindless compliance checks.

Though not universally embraced, there is also a sense in more contemporary perspectives that the models, styles, and traits that generate leadership efficacy are situational. This idea was first expressed by Tannenbaum and Schmidt (1958) in writing about management in the corporate world. They arrayed leadership approaches on a continuum from “boss centered” to “subordinate centered,” noting that a major challenge for (then) modern managers was deciding where to fall on the continuum in a given situation. In policing contexts, this suggests that “what works” for a leader is rarely universal, instead varying based on context, culture, position, objectives, the environment, the strengths and predispositions of a leader, and the preferences and characteristics of those the leader seeks to influence. An officer or leader who is ineffective in one agency or assignment might perform quite well in a different set of circumstances or vice versa. It has also been argued that leadership is not the same at all levels of an organization. The behaviors that make a leader an effective patrol sergeant might not yield the same outcomes for the leader when promoted to serve as a lieutenant overseeing the records division. Leaders need to be conscious of the fact that the approaches used in a given situation and/or to achieve a given end might not yield universal success.

Leadership is a challenging process, but it can be the element that distinguishes organizations that are “great” from those that are merely “good.” In addition, leadership is a behavior, not a position within an organization. Leaders are people who demonstrate certain skills and habits, regardless of their formal rank or office.

Too often it is presumed that all supervisors are leaders and that only supervisors can lead. Increasingly there is awareness and celebration of the idea that every officer must be a leader, at least in some contexts. Informal leadership is very difficult to measure in any type of organization, but it can have a profound influence on personnel and operations (Schafer 2001). Though the influence of informal police leaders is generally evident in policing scholarship, research has not been able to empirically define when and how it matters.

Theoretical perspectives and explanations regarding leadership extend far beyond the brief ideas reviewed in this passage. What is of relevance for this discussion are the ideas that leadership is situation but that modern perspectives tend to emphasize involving employees in the decision-making process. It is sometimes observed that leadership is something done with, not to, others. Further, it should be recognized that good leadership is actually quite difficult to achieve. Effective leaders continually seek ways to improve their performance as they confront new and different challenges (Schafer 2012).

Leadership Styles Displayed In Policing

Despite the presumed importance and influence of informal leaders in policing context, studies of police leadership have focused on studying formal supervisors. As a consequence, what is known about leadership styles and their influence (or lack thereof) is based on studies of those who have been awarded a rank. Such supervisors may or may not demonstrate actual leadership behaviors as they carry out their duties. Far less is known about leaders in police organizations, who may or may not hold an official rank in their agency (Van Maanen 1983). This section reviews literature seeking to describe the management and leaders styles police supervisors have displayed in prior studies. There is a distinction between what scholars found when they first began to study police supervisors and what is more often seen in contemporary agencies.

Early efforts to study the management styles of police supervisors did not paint a favorable picture of the level of actual leadership taking place in organizations. Kuykendall and Unsinger (1982) administered a leadership inventory to police managers. Their results suggested that most respondents used a variety of styles in the course of performing their supervisory duties. The most commonly reported management styles were selling, telling, and participation. There was little evidence that supervisors used actual leadership or other forms delegation as a component of their managerial style, though their data was collected in the late 1970s before these types of approaches had entered the discourse of police management. In other words, managers reported a preference to use styles that were oriented more toward “safe” methods emphasizing control and direction of personnel, rather than responses that might be considered more “risky” styles, such as delegating important tasks to subordinate personnel.

Mayo (1985) contended supervisors tended not to trust the skills, loyalty, and judgment of personnel in their agencies. This resulted in the observed practice of police supervisors engaging in micromanagement. Girodo (1998) surveyed police executives from around the world and found most reported leaning toward what might be considered “Machiavellian” approaches. End objectives were achieved not through democratic and participative approaches but through the manipulation of subordinate personnel. This is reflective of the tendency for police agencies to seek to operate as paramilitary organizations that exert top-down control over personnel, communication, and decision making. These traditional styles of police supervision have been subject to extensive criticism because they do not encourage employees to be committed, productive, and creative members of the workforce.

Allen (1982) found the type of supervision (i.e., the use of incentives) was likely more influential than the volume of supervision. Quality was more important than quantity (more contact), though his measures were quite limited. It should also be noted his research was conducted on a 1970s group of front-line police personnel. The education, traits, experiences, and expectations of modern patrol officers are likely quite different than what was seen in earlier eras.

Johnson (2006) studied supervisor influence on traffic and drunk driving enforcement in a collection of agencies in the Cincinnati metropolitan region. His results support that leadership matters, both in terms of the priorities of agency executives and also the priorities of patrol supervisors. Though leadership was deemed important, it was not the only factor influencing enforcement productivity. Organizational factors such as policies, supervision, and bureaucratic requirements do influence when and how officers enforce the law but so do situational factors, officer preferences, and environmental considerations. In other words, even when leadership matters, it is not the only force or factor influencing officers and the decisions they make.

Engel (2001) developed four broad categorizations of supervisory styles that help frame an understanding of different leadership approaches in policing. “Traditional” leaders were highly task oriented and expected aggressive enforcement of the law from subordinates; they were focused on traditional policing outcomes and presumably would have leaned toward transactional relationships with followers (e.g., officers making a lot of arrests and issue a lot of citations would presumably be ranked higher by traditional leaders). “Innovative” leaders were situated further onto the transactional end of the leadership continuum; they shared power with subordinates, sought to have friendly and productive relationships with subordinates, and emphasized community relations. “Supportive” supervisors sought to be a buffer between frontline personnel and top agency leaders; they place less emphasis on accomplishing traditional policing tasks. Finally, “active” supervisors were themselves highly active in front-line policing matters; they had positive views of their subordinates, tended to exemplify the idea of “leading by example,” and did not see themselves as radically different than those they supervised. Active supervisors demonstrated the most influenced in the two agencies included in Engel’s study.

Beginning in the 1980s, there has been a greater emphasis on democratic and participative approaches to police supervision and leadership (Wycoff and Skogan 1994), though limited advancements have been realized. The promise of such approaches is multifaceted. A leader who engages subordinates in making decisions can tap into the creativity, experience, and intelligence of employees. It is expected that participative approaches can make organizations more adaptable and responsive in the face of shifting and dynamic social environments. Leaders who use these types of approaches do not make all choices unilaterally. They engage subordinates to identify problems, determine priorities, and derive solutions. This does not suggest that all choices and actions are subject to full participation by all employees. Certainly there are aspects of police operations that require command-and-control authority and decision making, but such circumstances are the exception, not the rule. Though there is limited evidence assessing these types of practices, experiences to date suggest promising implications (Steinheider and Wuestewald 2008).

Survey data from police officers finds personnel often express a preference for supportive and participatory leadership styles (Witte et al. 1990). Officers do not like directive and controlling management styles. Instead, they prefer to be led in a process that grants them a voice and input into organizational decisions. This does not suggest that officers do not understand and support the needs of leaders to have ultimate authority. Rather, it implies that, when possible, officers prefer to be able to participate in organizational decision making in an open and democratic manner. Tentative evidence suggests that many police executives and leaders are similarly open-minded in employing nontraditional systems (Steinheider and Wuestewald 2008; Tannenbaum and Schmidt 1958). It is less clear, however, whether those expressions of support translate into actual changes in supervisory style as perceived by employees.

Consideration of supervisory styles in policing should not overlook the role of poor or ineffective leadership. Barbara Kellerman (2004) offered one of the best considerations of this topic in leadership literature. She argued that too often, professional and scholarly discussions of leadership frame leader behavior as benevolent and positive behavior. She and others have argued consideration of leadership needs to acknowledge leaders sometimes use less-than-ideal methods. Some supervisors achieve their objectives while using poor leadership techniques. Some leaders are quite successful but pursue ignoble or evil objectives (Adolf Hitler is the common example of this outcome). People who are generally very good and effective leaders occasionally make mistakes. Leaders who have been successful sometimes “derail” (McCall and Lombardo 1983). Consideration of police leadership styles should not overlook how poor and ineffective approaches can hamper the ability of leaders to achieve their objectives.

The Influence Of Leadership

It is generally accepted that police supervisors (who are formally in positions of leadership) can shape various organizational and individual outcomes produced by employees (Engel 2001). Supervisors are thought to have the ability to influence the tone of police operations, helping shape the style, tactics, and outcomes. In reality, it is far easier to believe that supervisors have such a strong and direct influence on officers and the organizations than it is to prove that belief is reality. This is partially a function of the limited amount of quality research studying supervisory and leadership influences in policing. It is also a reflection of the nature of the police organization itself.

In many organizational contexts, supervisors have routine and direct contact with their subordinates. The task environment is also such that employees often have limited discretion, established accountability mechanisms, and routine reporting demands that serve to structure, regulate, and formalize the decisions they make. Police departments are often characterized as a quasi-military bureaucracies characterized by command-and-control relationships between supervisors and subordinates. This tends to support the use of directive supervisory styles, which are predicated on the ability of a manager to closely monitor employee performance.

In reality, officers are frequently separated from their supervisors by both time and space. The nature of police work also means that officers enjoy a wide degree of discretion in performing their duties, particularly the low seriousness events that typify much of police work (Brown 1988; Van Maanen 1983). Additionally, police operations and personnel are influenced by cultural and external forces that serve to condition where, when, how, and to what end police decisions are made. The result is that it has been suggested police agencies are “loosely coupled organizations” (Maguire and Katz 2002). Police managers do not have the time or capacity to effectively monitor the actions of officers on the street. The unpredictable, dynamic, and complex nature of police work also makes it quite difficult for agencies to craft effective policies to govern and guide how officers make decisions in the field. As a result, police personnel are not nearly as restricted by administrative impositions.

On paper and in textbooks, agencies are orderly and control is clear; reality is quite different. This makes leadership (particularly transformational and democratic approaches) all the more important. Directive, controlling, manipulative, and micromanaging approaches actually function to push officers away from organizational objectives and discourage them from supporting the mission and vision of executives. Real leadership (as opposed to management) can help engage, empower, and motivate personnel to support and pursue organizational objectives. Because officers are often performing their duties with no direct supervision and little reliable evidence verifying when, where, and how they perform their duties, having engaged personnel is all the more important. Creating work environments that treat officers in accordance with McGregor’s (1960) Theory Y assumptions would, in the aggregate, be expected to produce better outcomes and results for the organization.

As a result of these factors, it is reasonable to expect limitations on the ability of police leadership to influence police personnel. Many of these challenges are far more acute in policing than in other occupational and organizational settings. Police personnel operate in environments with limited direct supervision, handle a diverse range of tasks, and make myriad high-discretion decisions (Allen 1982; Engel 2001; Van Maanen 1983, 1984). Though supervisors and organizations seek to impose policies, protocols, structures, and mandates to condition and direct discretionary behavior, officers enjoy a considerable degree of latitude in performing their duties. This totality of circumstances suggests that leaders will have a limited, but not nonexistent, ability to influence officers. Police supervisors and leaders are able to exert at least a limited degree of influence on personnel.

Much of the research studying supervisory influence has focused on examining traditional policing outcomes, such as enforcement behavior, use of force, and officer misbehavior (Brown 1988; Huberts et al. 2007). Though such considerations are important, they reflect but a narrow range of the tasks to which officers attend and the expectations the public has of their police. Equally important, they tend to focus on the ends, rather than the means, of policing. A small number of studies have attempted to examine issues such as the nature of police encounters with the public and self-initiated efforts officer undertakes to address specific problems. Taken as a whole, researchers have achieved mixed assessments of whether supervisors can influence the behavior of subordinate personnel (cf, Allen 1982; Brown 1988; National Research Council 2004). It should be noted that many of these studies were limited in the types of influence they were studying and the methods that were used to measure specified outcomes.

It has conventionally been assumed that bringing about change in police organizations is akin to “bending granite” (Rowe 2006). In recent years, increasing experience and empirical evidence have begun to suggest this may not always be the case. Jermier and Berkes (1979) studied officers in a Midwestern agency, finding that officers were supportive of leadership approaches that emphasized participation. Officers reported they were less inclined to respond to directive and controlling management approaches. Case studies of community policing have highlighted the role of leadership as a mechanism to facilitate rapid (and at times, radical) organizational transformation (Wycoff and Skogan 1994). Though critics have dismissed the roles of William Bratton and COMPSTAT as causal forces influencing New York City’s crime decline, there can be little doubt that his leadership style in NYPD (and elsewhere) has brought about rapid change in climate and culture. Thus, leadership can change police culture, though it is still difficult to determine how and why that outcome is achieved in some instances and not in others.

Several studies based on data collected for the Project on Policing Neighborhoods (POPN) tend to offer some provisional evidence that supervisors can influence front-line personnel (Engel 2001). Importantly, these studies attempted to assess not just the general idea of supervisory influence. Instead, supervisors were categorized based on their general management style. Findings based on the POPN data offer a possible explanation for the mixed results achieved in prior studies by suggesting that variation in supervisory influence is partially a product of dissimilarity in supervisory styles. Not all supervisors use the same approaches in seeking to control, influence, and lead. The methods and styles used by supervisors vary based on the circumstances, timing, and audience, as well as the supervisor’s perceptions of various situational exigencies.

Far less is known about the measurement of leadership efficacy beyond considerations of officer performance, output, and conduct. What other metrics might be used and who should provide input on the performance of a given leader? These efforts can be challenging, as they require the development of broader definitions and measures of leader efficacy, which tends to invoke a number of methodological difficulties. Huberts et al. (2007) studied Dutch police officers. They found leadership approaches did influence integrity violations by officers. In particular their results suggested that officers were influenced by strong role modeling by their leaders. When leaders took a strong stance against integrity violations and were perceived to perform their duties with a high moral standard, officers were more inclined to emulate that approach. This is certainly a favorable representation of what might be achieved through leadership, at least based on some important outcomes of relevance to policing.

As a result of this body of literature, several important observations and conclusions can be made about leadership and influence in police organizations. Supervisors can influence frontline personnel, at least in the production of some outcomes using some management styles. Poor leadership practices can also generate real and negative consequences in the workplace, including poor productivity, dissatisfaction, stress, attrition, and absenteeism, among other concerns (Kelloway et al. 2005). Though traditional police leadership approaches were primarily transactional (stick and carrot) approaches, transformational strategies seem more promising in their ability to favorably influence personnel and behavior. There is evidence that followers might prefer such participatory approaches and that leaders are open to their use. To date, however, research has not been able to conclusively contrast the outcomes of transactional and transformational leadership approaches in policing.

Generational Effects

There may be generational and experiential influences that shape the approaches used by supervisors. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a renewed emphasis on college education for police personnel. Pursley (1974) compared police chiefs based on education, experience, and involvement in professional activities (belonging to national professional associations, publishing in professional periodicals); he analyzed their responses to a variety of leadership inventories. He found that educated chiefs had less experience (both as officers and chiefs, suggesting they were also likely to be younger), were more connected with professional groups and activities, and were more receptive to more transformational leadership approaches (though he did not use this term). Younger leaders were more willing to support delegating authority within the workforce, allowing subordinates to participate in decision making, embracing more democratic approaches, and supporting less authoritarian and controlling leadership approaches. Thus, when considering how generations influence policing and police leadership, it is not just a matter of different mentalities across groups of different officers. Supervisors from different generations might also have different ideas about how to lead personnel.

Cohen (1980) studied command personnel (captains and above) in the New York City Police Department based on data collected in 1972. He found two primary management styles. Tradition-oriented leaders generally had no education beyond high school. Reform-oriented leaders generally had attended or were attending college. Tradition-oriented leaders were focused on power and authority, while reform-oriented leaders were more participative and emphasized community relations and service. Cohen found that reform-oriented leaders had received lower ratings on internal performance assessments, but he attributed this to the probability that tradition-oriented leaders were evaluating most reform-oriented leaders. Thus, it is would not be surprising to see that the disjuncture in their orientations toward leadership and the broader role of the police might result in less positive performance evaluations.

This holds important implications for understanding leadership. First, it reinforces that leadership is situational; at the very least “good” leadership is a time-bound concept. Cohen’s work was being done during a time of transition and reform in NYPD. Second, leadership practices and police personnel might both experience different generations. Several factors contribute to this situation. In general, different generations are distinct from one another based on variation in life experiences, culture, and broader society during their formative years. During eras of transition in policing (the movement out of the traditional model in the 1970s, the proliferation of community policing in the 1980s and 1900s, the emergence of various data-driven and evidence- based policing practices in the 2000s), there is likely to be tension throughout all ranks of police agencies. Personnel who started their career one (or two) ideological generations earlier might be less inclined to adapt their beliefs, values, and practices. Making matters more complicated, the role of leadership in periods of reform and transition might be a function both of a leader’s generation and position within the organization. Top executives likely are driving forces behind implementing these reforms and innovations, so their support might be expected. In contrast, the drag or tension may be among mid-level supervisors. Sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and others who feel no ownership over the new idea have little reason to embrace new perspectives. They may resist the change or evenly actively obstruct its emergence because they view the change as a threat to both their perspective on leadership and their continued advancement in the organization.

Andreescu and Vito (2010) found contemporary managers expressed strong support for ideals consistent with transformational leadership approaches. These included inclusive and human-oriented styles of leadership, the articulation of an organizational vision, caring for the well-being of employees, and setting an example for employees. Transformational approaches remain a challenge for police organizations.

Though support for this style of leadership is apparent among police personnel and leaders (Witte et al. 1990), there is also a belief that such circumstances as participatory management are not actually found in most organizations. Stamper (1992) found a disjuncture between how executives perceived themselves and how members of their executive staff perceived them. Executives believed they lead their organization in one fashion. This self-perception tended to differ from how those around the executives perceived their leadership style and influence.

Intuitively it makes sense that younger officers might be more likely to support transformational, participatory, and democratic approaches to leadership. These youth are more oriented toward social interaction, social involvement, and being allowed a voice in aspects of organizational operations. Scholars and professionals continue to speculate that there might be a generational preference for transformational leadership approaches, but there is still an absence of research evidence assessing this matter in policing contexts. As the labor force becomes increasingly filled with those from generations desiring more transformational leadership, it will be increasingly important that police leadership adapt to reflect that situation. If organizations are to maintain long-term viability, it will be essential to create work environments that attract and retain newer generations of officers.


Leadership remains a vital issue in modern police organizations. Its importance cannot be refuted, and the need for leadership (not simply strong management) is quite apparent within the profession. What remains more elusive is a clear understanding of when and how leadership matters as a force influencing the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of police personnel. Though there is a natural appeal toward transformational leadership styles, the potential benefits of these approaches remain presumed rather than proven in police organizations. Issues of leadership will most likely continue to become increasingly important in the future as police organizations need to be more adaptive in responding to ever-changing criminal threats and community expectations. This will be compounded by work forces increasingly composed of officers from more recent generations, who may well require a very different style of leadership and a very different organizational environment. If police organizations are going to remain viable in confronting crime and disorder, real leadership will be of increasing importance. Both the research community and the profession itself must support the development of greater knowledge of the role leadership will play in these dynamic future environments.


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