Edge Staff


By Nicole Cain, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

The rapidly changing political and social climate in the United States presents new challenges for law enforcement and requires exceptional leaders to navigate through them. Law enforcement administrators and line supervisors must possess leadership skills that allow them to connect with a wide-ranging demographic within their police agency while remaining dedicated to their primary mission of serving the public. The success of a police agency is dependent upon the effectiveness of its leaders.

[Related: Public Safety Leadership: Be Cautious of Extreme Narcissists]

In order to truly understand law enforcement leadership, it is essential to listen to those who have led and followed in a police organization. I conducted a research project to identify the most effective leadership skills and styles. I collected data from a mid-sized police department in central Florida. My dual-faceted research approach involved observing officers, line leaders, and administrators in a typical workday setting. I also conducted interviews with a mid-level supervisor to glean further insight into effective leadership attributes, leadership training, leadership style, and the role and effectiveness of informal leaders within a police agency. While my research is not comprehensive, it provides some insight into police leadership and inspired further research on the topic.

Effective Leadership Styles

There were two leadership styles that emerged as critical in law enforcement. They were situational leadership and transformational leadership.

Situational Leadership

This leadership style requires leaders to quickly assess a situation and recognize the appropriate personnel and resources needed for a specific mission. Because the nature of police work is both high-risk and dynamic, it is important for a leader to navigate through evolving and often dangerous circumstances. Possessing the ability to digest information quickly and make decisions under pressure is paramount. Situational leadership is often reactive and should not be the primary style of law enforcement leaders.

Transformational Leadership

This focuses on encouraging the success of others. A transformational leader develops a vision of the future intended to excite and inspire followers. Ideally, transformation leaders create valuable and positive change in their followers with the end goal of teaching them to become leaders.

Transformational leaders can foster a positive change in their agencies and communities by addressing the low morale of officers who are policing in an anti-police society. The animosity, mistrust, and criticism of law enforcement is present on the news, social media, and in our streets. A transformational leader must foster collaboration by mending wounds both internally and externally. Leaders can inspire officers by highlighting their achievements, recognizing their strengths, providing opportunities for growth, and honing their skills.

Characteristics Needed by Strong Leaders

Hierarchy Awareness and Delegation Skills                      

There is a defined command hierarchy in all law enforcements departments. Most departments are designed with a paramilitary rank structure and officers are expected to follow the chain-of-command. It is important for leaders to delegate responsibilities and trust their subordinates to successfully execute those duties with minimal oversight. Leaders must build a network of trust and accountability from the top down through the ranks while fostering new leaders and encouraging new ideas. Providing officers with informal leadership roles is paramount to the professional development of officers as well as the implementation of new ideas in the agency.


One of the most important attributes of a leader is honesty. Leaders need to be transparent and direct with subordinates. Dishonest leaders create chaos in their agency because they lose credibility with their “flock.” A leaderless flock will inevitably fail. Officers thrive in a structured environment with leaders who follow the rules and prescribed consequences.

Ability to Motivate and Reward

Law enforcement leaders must lead the entire agency. In order to effectively inspire people to follow, leaders must understand their respective agency and community’s demographic. A good leader can relate to people of all generations and cultures and know what approach to use to motivate them.

Knowledge of the Field, Encourage Education and Professional Growth

Law enforcement as a profession is constantly evolving. Such ongoing change requires leaders to stay on top of the development of new laws and technology. While it’s not always necessary for a leader to have a college education, it is often beneficial. Formal education tends to challenge officers and it encourages them to seek out learning opportunities. Leaders should strive to foster an environment that encourages learning and growth, provides training opportunities, the sharing of ideas, and the development of innovative ways to accomplish goals.

Caring about Officers’ Wellbeing

Leaders must recognize the importance of continuance in leadership. The most effective leaders are the ones who care about their subordinates and want them to be successful, both professionally and personally. Current officers are future leaders and must be served and supported.

The Need to Develop Strong Leaders

The role of law enforcement rarely remains fixed, but the methods by which law enforcement officers serve and protect shifts with the political climate. Law enforcement leaders must understand the nuances of the profession and the shifting political climate to guide their members. Furthermore, police leaders must possess certain attributes that influence others to follow. The key findings of my research illustrate the importance of situational and transformational leadership, honesty, and the role of informal leaders within the agency.

leaderAbout the Author: Nicole Cain has been an instructor with American Military University for five years and has instructed numerous criminology and forensic courses online for more than nine years. She has more than 17 years of law enforcement experience serving in a variety of capacities to include patrol operations, uniform crime scene, community-oriented policing (COP), and criminal investigations. She is currently assigned to the Criminal Investigations Section’s Felony Intake where she prepares all felony cases for the State Attorney’s Office. During her career in law enforcement, she has authored police reports, arrest affidavits, and search warrants, observed autopsies, testified in court, processed crime scenes, interviewed witnesses and conducted interrogations. She attends Southeastern University where she is pursuing her Doctoral degree in Education (Ed.D).