Police Leadership: The Enigma

Types of training & the challenge of training cops to be leaders

By Michael A. Orticelle  |   Jun 1, 2016

By: Michael A. Orticelle

I have been fortunate to attend several police leadership training events over the last year. Organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Gallagher-Westfall Group have training programs for police executives that consist of one to several weeks of training. Calibre Press has leadership trainings that are presented in one- or two-day sessions.

If you were lucky, you had one supervisor in your career who helped you to achieve your best. Hopefully, that supervisor continued to promote and has had a positive influence on how your department is being run.

Training newly promoted first-line supervisors in leadership is essential in modernizing how police organizations are operated. Changing the ‘respond-and-manage’ mentality to a proactive leadership style that encourages follower development may take some time, but a change is imperative. I have never been a supervisor for a law enforcement agency. I was a follower who knew one supervisor who practiced follower development. Unfortunately, that supervisor was in a minority, and he had little influence on organizational change.

Types of Leadership Training

Academia has been trying to define leadership for many years. The major leadership theories are: Great Man Theory (1840s), Trait Theory (1930s–40s) Behavioral Theories (1940s–50s), Contingency Theories (1960s), Transactional Leadership Theories (1970s), and Transformational Leadership Theories (1970s). The three main theories that have come to prominence in recent history are Contingency Theories (Fiedler and Hersey-Blanchard), Transactional Leadership (Weber and Bass), and Transformational Leadership (Burns). Police leadership training has focused more on Contingency  and situational theories than transformational theories.

Policing has traditionally been a reactive profession. An incident occurs and the police respond. In other words, police fix problems. This process falls nicely into the Transactional model of leadership. A supervisor expects that the officer will handle a situation so they do not need to lead, they simply manage the situation and move on to the next event. This process unfortunately does nothing to develop future leaders. The current training programs that I have been fortunate to attend are attempting to change the past and teach current leaders the importance of teaching followers how to be future leaders.

The Contingency Theory of leadership is based on the premise that the leader will help the follower by adapting their leadership approach to follower development. This approach is based on the willingness of the follower to adapt and perform required tasks. The Westfall/Gallagher Group teaches this theory.

The Transformational Leadership Theory posited by James MacGregor Burns focuses on the motivations and needs of how a leader perceives power. Transformational leadership promotes values and transcends traditional leadership by suggesting the leader have a complete change in their development. The transformational leader will help those willing to embrace a new set of values and ethics.

A problem with teaching Transformational Leadership theory is that it is difficult to understand. How do you measure some one’s values and ethical position? At what point do the leader and follower lift each other up to a new level of motivation and morality?

Contingency Theory on the other hand is easy to understand and can be taught by identifying the theoretical theory and applying it to real situations. Contingency Theory has its own limitations. For example, it may not be applicable in situations that are very complex or that have time constraints. The Contingency model is better suited for training purposes.

The IACP has created a training that is a practical application of Contingency Theory where the attendees work in groups to solve problems and identify the needs of the followers. The Gallagher-Westfall Group incorporates the learning of the Blanchard model of Contingency theory with practical group and individual exercises.

The Calibre Press leadership training focuses on the fundamentals of human interaction. This concept is a tenet in all leadership theories but when presented without the encumbrance of theories, the training can address the basics of understanding basic communications skills.


So which training is best? Is one leadership training enough? I did not write this article to pass judgement on or promote the training groups. They each have very qualified and professional trainers presenting the material.

I have identified three of the many training organizations available to law enforcement. The enigma of leadership training lies in the fact that although there has been leadership training available for many years, only recently has law enforcement embraced the idea of follower development.

Bottom line: I would encourage police supervisors to attend as many leadership trainings as possible. Leadership principles need to be reinforced so that law enforcement organizations can ensure an effective transition of supervisory responsibilities by preparing followers for future leadership positions.