What 15 Months of Sergeanting Taught Me About Leadership


When I was promoted to Police Sergeant, I was a 10-year cop who didn’t have a burning desire to get promoted.  I liked being a working cop. As a competitive person, I saw the promotion process as an opportunity to compete against others without thinking I would actually finish at the top of the list.  After being promoted, whenever I parted ways with other cops I would joke that I had to go because there was “sergeanting” to do.  This was my tongue in cheek way of saying I didn’t know what the hell a Sergeant was supposed to do because I was no longer doing fist line police work.

A lot of people in Law Enforcement talk about the problem the industry has with leadership.  Most efforts to examine the issue end up with a list of bad or good traits of a leader.  The problem is that everybody thinks they have the good traits and that the “other guy” has the bad ones.  Sit through a discussion of the bad traits of a leader and look around the room at all the people nodding their heads in agreement.  What you never see is a guy standing up yelling, “wow, that is so me.”  What leadership training never really teaches is HOW to lead.  After a little more than a year I would never claim to be an expert, but here are a few things I have learned along the way.

Taking care of the troops means acting in their best interest, not just sticking up for them.  One of the first citizen complaints I received, I knew the officer did nothing wrong and basically told the complainant to pound sand.  It fed my ego that “I can do that now”, and the cop thought it was cool.  The problem was that the lady complained up the chain and this brought scrutiny on the cop from a higher level.  He was still cleared, but it caused more headache and stress for him than if I had handled it better at my level.  Our department has an internet based system for training employees on policies.  It is a cumbersome, check the box waste of time.  Because I have a low opinion of the system, I did not hold one of my guys to meeting the deadlines for signing off on policies because he is a good cop and I wanted him to know that I valued his police work over admin stuff.  The problem is that the command staff member in charge of getting these done approached me and wanted to know why that cop never had his stuff done on time.  By failing to make him get his stuff done, I let a good cop look bad in front of a command staff member who gets a vote when he later applies for specialty positions.

You must sell the mission.  This doesn’t mean the fluffy statement on a plaque in the lobby.  I sell problem solving (not handling the same call twice), violence prevention, and safety.  Your guys need a crystal-clear vision of what you think good police work looks like.  You won’t always be there to guide the way, but they will get there if they know where they are going.  You will never sell anyone on this if you aren’t a believer yourself. Once you have established the mission, you must hold people accountable to it, this includes yourself.  It is a lot less tempting to micromanage if you know your people are working toward the mission.

If one of your people falls short because they lacked the knowledge to succeed, it is your fault.  It is your job to teach them, show them how to teach themselves, or show them where they can go to learn.  Most cops go to the academy and learn the book stuff, on orientation they get the policy stuff, and on field training they see how it happens on the street.  You need to help them make the connections between academy and policy to the street. For example, a lady calls and complains that a cop yelled at her on a traffic crash scene.  When asked about it the cop says, “lady wouldn’t get out of the street, so I told that dumb bitch to move it before she got run over.”  In contrast, an officer with the ability to relate what he did to the academy text might say, “The lady was in the street.  When she did not respond to my request to move to a safer area, I escalated my verbalization to heavy control talk to prevent her from being at risk of physical injury.”  Same action, but which explanation gets past the bosses with the least hassle to the cop?  Knowing they can explain their actions in academy and policy language will make them more confident in their decision making even when they have to do something that isn’t in the book or policy. You must understand the box before you can think outside it without getting jammed up.  Once you get guys to this level, policy becomes a permission slip not a list of what not to do and they will have a bias for action.  Don’t pass up a learning opportunity. When a cop does a job that is just acceptable, show him how to polish it closer to perfection.  In doing this you are preparing them for the day that they need perfection to win (in both the officer safety, court and career safety sense).

When coaching on policy, teach them the difference between generally, may, shall, and will not.  Explain the exceptions now so they will have confidence working in them in the heat of the moment.  For example, our policy GENERALLY prohibits tazing a running subject.  This is because the risk of injury is higher than it is for a static deployment.  The wording of the policy is clumsy.  However, we can shoot some fleeing people under the right circumstances so naturally we are not completely prohibited from tazing the right people.  Walk your people through the circumstances that would get them around the “generally” word in the policy so they don’t have to wonder in the heat of the moment.  Even if they are capable of figuring it out themselves, they will have a lot more confidence having heard it from you.

Be an open book.  You were successful enough to get promoted for a reason.  Explain the things you did that made you successful.  This doesn’t mean war stories about the cool stuff you did.  This means describe the processes you engaged in that made you a good cop.  You are probably smart now because you learned from all the stupid stuff you did back when.  Be open in discussing the mistakes you made, how they could have been mitigated and what you learned from them.   I have a binder full of reports from my career.  Partly it is a scrapbook of memories for myself, but it can also be a resource for my guys.  It has all my taser, OC, and baton deployments with some other notable uses of force, pursuits, drug arrests, and investigations.  Each one has notes on how the report, my actions, or the investigation could have been better.  It also points out what worked well and why specific language was used in the reports.  When pulling apart incidents, evaluate them on process not results.  What I mean is, don’t claim victory when we got lucky despite ourselves and recognize when we did the right things but the bad guy got lucky.  At the same time, be able to recognize when “luck” was actually the intersection of hard work, preparation and opportunity.  Honest debriefs need to be a part of your culture.  You won’t see everything, they need to have the confidence to correct and coach each other without it being a big deal.  The lessons learned from inside the PD stuff can be just as helpful to them as the on the street lessons.  You should know what their career goals are.  Help them create a vision of what they need to do to get there.

You will have that guy that always calls and asks, “what do I do.”  Just telling him does him no favors.  Describe to him how to think through it and where to find the answer.  I generally require my guys to give me a range of options and help describe the thought process that leads me to prefer one of them.  You will also have the guy that knows the right answer but always wants your blessing first.  Make him make decisions.  In both these situations you are preparing the cop to function when you are not there.  Senior cops who still have these habits wonder why they always get passed up for special assignments or promotions.  It is partly their leader’s fault for not preparing them to function on their own and make that next step.

The most important part of managing an in-progress incident is making sure everyone is working towards the same goal.  For example, a neighboring agency is chasing a car toward your jurisdiction for charges that don’t meet your policy.  Some of your cops think the mission is to help catch the bad guy, some think it is to drive to the opposite side of town and avoid at all costs, and some will try and channel the pursuit away from your populated areas.  It is up to you to understand your command’s expectation and put out a mission statement over the air so everybody is clear what we are doing.  As the car barrels toward the bus full of nuns there will not be time to approve every decision.  Make your intent clear and the smart people you work for will make it happen.

It isn’t your job to do stuff anymore, it is your job to make sure stuff gets done.  Everybody talks about leading from the front and that is cool until you get task saturated and things go to hell.  If you were a good cop, you probably won’t be able to help yourself sometimes.  Be able to recognize when you are in too deep to manage the event and delegate somebody to keep the 10k foot view until you can disengage.  My first month after promotion I responded to an armed subject.  While I was managing that call, we had a second armed subject and an unrelated vehicle pursuit.  I could not have fulfilled my responsibilities for each incident if I was in the front of the stack on the first call.  I am not sure the true value of “leading from the front” refers to your physical positioning relative to your guys anyway.  I think it refers more to being at the front of belief in the mission, skill, effort and innovative thought.   Back to my pursuit analogy, I think leading from the front is done by being in front of the OODA loop by defining a common objective rather than waiting for your people to ask for your approval for every move they make along the way.

The biggest lesson I have learned in the past 15 months is that police leadership is hard.  It is a daily grind to actively grow your own knowledge, assess the knowledge of your cops, and implement strategies to expand the team’s collective abilities.  When you have the big call that works out well it won’t be because everybody “came through” that day.  It won’t be because you gave a critical order at an important moment.  If the team succeeds, it will be because they knew your expectations, were prepared and just waiting on the opportunity.  If they fail, it will be because you failed to define the mission or give them the discipline, knowledge and confidence to succeed.  This list is by no means exhaustive, and there is always the possibility that I am completely wrong on some or all points.  I look forward to discussion and further feedback.

Author’s note: I write because it forces me to organize my own thoughts and beliefs as well as gives me a vehicle to get input from others.  My experience is limited and I profess no mastery on the subject. 


Sgt Jimmy G Holford III


This post currently has 3 responses

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.