Toxic leadership–causes and remedies   2 comments

Roy Alston and George Reed wrote a paper on “Toxic Police Leadership” that I thought did a great job of describing one of the reasons that police departments were such a crappy place to work, even though the actual work was challenging, rewarding, and often even fun. Roy will send you a copy of the article if you ask. He can be reached through his LinkedIn page.

Below is the message I posted on a LinkedIn discussion page of the article.

Roy’s article did a great job of codifying some of the concepts I believe most of us have known existed in law enforcement for our entire careers. I have an corollary theory as to why toxic leadership is so commonplace in law enforcement. Police officers are the only group in a free society who can lawfully use force to compel people to their will. We’re trained as line officers to keep that as a last resort, but one of the requirements of success as a police officer is the ability to use the force option without hesitation when necessary.

Police officers who move into management roles take with them that acclimation to the force option. While a sergeant is not empowered to use force against a subordinate in order to achieve compliance, it doesn’t mean they don’t consider it in some context, even if the force option doesn’t take on the form of a baton strike or a wristlock. Instead, the toxic manager relies on fear and intimidation to compel his will.

Rookie officers often have problems with the use of force, using too much or not enough for the situation. With time, successful officers learn where the “sweet spot” lies and become adept at achieving compliance without having to use force. Law enforcement officers who progress rapidly up the ranks don’t spend a lot of time in the basic job of patrol officer or deputy. Instead, they gravitate quickly to assignments that are often administrative in nature, and spend minimal time on the street. Once they get that first promotion, they may never again take their handcuffs out of their case. They learn just enough about the force option to use it inappropriately and unwisely.

The military is probably the closest model we have to a law enforcement organization, but the military is not so plagued with toxic leaders (although they too have their share). I believe there are several reasons for this. One, the military is more likely to require a minimum “time in grade” before a member is eligible for promotion. Law enforcement does this, too, but the calendar is much more abbreviated. Some agencies allow officers to take the test for sergeant after only two years of service, and a sergeant may supervise as many as ten officers. It would take typically five years, and probably longer, for an enlisted man in the military to promote to a level (E-5 or E-6) where he would oversee that many people.

The military does use officers who may have never been enlisted personnel, but only after a rigorous training and vetting program with significant emphasis on leadership skills. Law enforcement training programs for supervisors and executives emphasize management, rather than leadership. You can manage things, like vehicles, uniforms and firearms, but you have to lead people.

Finally, the military requires that even its top leadership maintain competency in basic skills. It isn’t likely that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will ever again go toe-to-toe with an enemy soldier, but he must still pass an annual physical fitness test, qualify with a sidearm and possibly a rifle, and demonstrate competency in other fundamental tasks of his service. I have forgotten the source of this quote and don’t have it verbatim, but some years back a newly-appointed commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps was interviewed by a reporter. The reporter asked what the commandant’s job entailed. The reply was something like, “I am an infantry rifleman, presently assigned as the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.” He wanted everyone to understand that he believed in the Marine Corps’ legacy that every marine was first a rifleman, then whatever his or her military occupation was. I wonder how many chiefs of police would characterize themselves as uniformed patrol officers with an assignment as the chief of police, or who would be able or willing to put on the war suit and get into a car to chase the radio for a shift? I believe a requirement that every member of a law enforcement agency spend a few days a year performing and demonstrating competency at the basic mission would reduce the number of toxic leaders in our profession.

Written by Tim Dees on June 18th, 2011