Strong Leaders in Law Enforcement: Starting & Staying the Course

Being a leader—especially a new one—is challenging. Whether you’re starting in a leadership position after rising through the ranks of your agency or coming into a new agency as a leader, no one is immune to these challenges. And the first days in your leadership role, much like a first impression, matter. These days, weeks and months set the tone for your relationship with your personnel, your style of communication and your priorities as an agency leader. How should you spend these 100 days and all the days after that? How can you build the culture you want at your agency? How do you foster trust and get good feedback from your personnel?

In a recent webinar, “The First 100 Days in Office: Tips for the New Law Enforcement Leader,” Chief Ken Wallentine, Lt. (Ret.) Bill McAuliffe, Chief Dawn Layman and Undersheriff Stacy Simmons share their experiences moving into new leadership positions and top tips for new law enforcement leaders.

Listen & Learn

From the get-go, leaders can build trust with their employees through listening and engaging. “ have to see you, they have to understand that you know it’s tough,” Undersheriff Simmons explains. All panelists highlighted the importance of being with your people—talking to them, listening to them, joining them for training and meeting them where they are. As a leader, it is often easy to become siloed, separate and removed from the daily operations of your agency. Work to foster two-way communication, finding ways to listen and invite feedback, set clear and consistent expectations, and demonstrate care for your personnel.

Being a listener, caring for your staff and inviting feedback is more than having an open-door policy. As Chief Wallentine explains, “Have an open, outward policy…not just an open door.” Ask questions to understand what you as a leader are doing well and what needs improvement. Chief Wallentine’s three questions to ask your personnel are:

  • How does someone in my role positively or negatively affect your ability to do your work?
  • From your perspective, how can someone in my role be most helpful to you?
  • How and how often would you like me to check in with you and be accountable for my impact on you?

Demonstrate care for your people amid the challenges of law enforcement. Check in with them following a critical incident. And, as Gordon Graham says, “Catch your people doing something good.” Recognize and celebrate successes at every level. “Let your folks know that you’re one of them and part of the team,” McAuliffe says.

These days, weeks and months set the tone for your relationship with your personnel, your style of communication and your priorities as an agency leader.

Make a Plan & Execute It

Especially when coming into a new agency as a leader, it’s important to take time to understand the agency and its people before executing your plan and taking steps to accomplish your goals. “I let them know I wasn’t going to be a bull in the china shop,” McAuliffe says of his own experience. “I’m not here to make a bunch of changes.” This is an opportunity to rely on your personnel and their expertise, get feedback from them on what works and what doesn’t, and share your plan for collecting information and improving the agency. Throughout this process, it’s essential to build trust with your personnel. That starts with letting your people “know you trust them to run the facility,” McAuliffe further explains. “You’re just there to help them run it.” The expertise your staff brings should influence your plan and goals.

In addition to fostering trust with your staff, you must also take time to build relationships with city leadership and other key stakeholders. “Start cultivating relationships with political bodies immediately,” Undersheriff Simmons says. Have conversations with your city council, city manager, mayor or any other group or official that your agency is beholden to. Explain the needs of your agency and your priorities as a new leader based on what you’ve observed and the feedback your staff has provided. But it’s more than just talking with political leaders: “You have to build relationships with activism groups, community groups, district court judges,” Undersheriff Simmons explains. Really, it’s about communicating and understanding all stakeholders of your agency—both internally and externally.

Developing Strong Leaders

“Everyone has a leadership philosophy,” Chief Layman says. Have you developed yours? Professional development doesn’t end when you become a leader; if anything, it becomes even more essential. This includes “going to training with your folks, reading, being a part of the community,” says Undersheriff Simmons. Professional development may start to look different as you climb through the ranks, but staying on top of your game is just as essential as when you first started in law enforcement. Not only does it strengthen your skills—both as a law enforcement professional and a leader—but it also sets an important standard for your agency’s culture and an example for your personnel.

To learn more, watch the on-demand webinar, “The First 100 Days in Office: Tips for the New Law Enforcement Leader.”

Lexipol Team

Lexipol provides public safety and local government with solutions that combine the impact of information with the power of technology. We serve more than 2 million first responders and local government officials with policies, training, wellness resources, grant assistance, and news and analysis.

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