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Written by Robert Roy Johnson
Captains often develop a particular leadership style. Some prefer to manage their people closely. They assign specific tasks and monitor activity scrupulously, but they are wary of establishing close personal relationships with their people, and they do not fraternize. Other captains may also insist on directing personnel with detailed guidelines but are not averse to maintaining a friendly rapport with the rank and file.
Then, there are captains who socialize with their officers but trust their people to know what needs to be done and are confident they have the maturity and desire to accomplish the tasks at hand. Similar to these captains are those who are completely hands off, fully expecting their people to possess the skills and knowledge to do the job. However, they generally avoid any friendly relationship with the officers.
A newly promoted captain might assume a new command and consider a style of leadership with which to approach the new challenge. Which style is best? Well, each is most effective depending on the characteristics of the officer or group of officers who are being supervised at a particular time.
Each of these styles of leadership, along with several others, is delineated in much greater detail by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in their book, “Management and Organizational Behavior.” They maintained that a style can be effective only when matched with the appropriate level of competence and commitment. This is commonly referred to as situational leadership. The leader’s style must correspond to the maturity or developmental level of the officer. It is incumbent on the leader to make the adjustment. Effective leaders do not expect their personnel to adjust to them because this may never happen.
Basically, successful leaders are flexible. A rigid, intractable style is not conducive to accomplishing department goals. Wise leaders know their people. They familiarize themselves with the strengths, weaknesses, diverse personalities, and idiosyncrasies of their officers. Armed with this knowledge, these captains adjust.
Captain Easy was in command of the detectives working the property crimes division. In this unit, the captain was accustomed to working with extremely knowledgeable investigators. They had earned the rank of detective either though testing or by virtue of their department accomplishments. The detectives were very ambitious and were disproportionately represented on sergeant’s promotional lists. These were highly motivated investigators.
Captain Easy, a delegator, was a perfect fit for this unit. The captain acted as on overseer. Captain Easy rarely, if ever, intervened or provided input. Instead, he simply facilitated detective’s efforts by ensuring they had the means necessary to conduct their investigations.
As a reward for a job well done, Captain Easy was given command of the elite, uniformed tactical force. The officers comprising this division were highly motivated but very task oriented. They were accustomed to receiving specific direction. Their previous commanding officer, Captain Bossthem, held a formal roll call each day during which specific crime patterns in pre-determined locations were assigned as missions. The officers would report back at the end of each tour of duty with a list of their arrests and accomplishments within this targeted area. Captain Bossthem then would critique their activity.
Captain Easy, on the other hand, dispensed with the roll calls, provided no precise directions, and required no reporting of activity. Though highly motivated, these officers, without direction, specific assignments, or the feedback generated when they reported their activity, lost focus. Consequently, their activity declined substantially.
Meanwhile, Captain Bossthem was promoted to commanding officer of the gang intelligence unit. The investigators assigned to this unit were accustomed to conducting in-depth investigations and accumulating street gang data. Captain Bossthem took charge and immediately began assigning specific tasks, missions, and operations. The captain also implemented a policy of riding with the various teams of investigators to closely monitor their activity. Needless to say, the gang detectives, accustomed to a great deal of independence, reacted poorly to this type of micro-managing. Their production decreased as well.
Previously, exceptionally effective within their units, these two captains failed in their latest assignments, never really understanding why. Neither captain recognized the need to adjust his style to more closely suit the idiosyncratic characteristics of his new command.
Police work is multi-faceted and complex. Also any department’s personnel will be composed of a variety of individual personalities. And, as we have seen, entire units within the department probably will manifest certain group characteristics. These officers and units will differ in motivation, dedication, knowledge and attitude. The recalcitrant leader, either unable or unwilling to make leadership adjustments, will be ineffective.
Obviously, a leadership style is important. And some aspects of a captain’s management approach will be constant. However, the desire and ability to adjust is essential to success. Know your people. Discern what style works best within each unit and with each individual. Then tweak your leadership technique accordingly. Your officers will respond positively. Adapt and succeed.
Robert Roy Johnson is a 38-year police veteran, currently at the rank of captain. A management consultant and speaker, Johnson is an adjunct professor in Public Safety Management at Calumet College of Saint Joseph. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, Mar 2009
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