Policing is notoriously based on hierarchy and militaristic structures. The autocratic leader is ordinarily the style that is equated to police chiefs and command level officers. Autocratic leadership has been described as a dictatorship. In this situation, the leader’s word is “law.” The typical autocratic leader does not involve others in the decision making process. And this type of leader might resort to manipulation or even threats to accomplish their goals. I’ve worked for several supervisors that ruled with an iron fist and the only thing they accomplished was short-term compliance. I’ve learned through the years that you can buy a person’s back but you cannot buy their hearts. Under this leadership style, officers don’t feel valued and they won’t give any more than they are required.
On the other end of the spectrum are the laissez-faire leaders. This leadership style is also known as the “hands-off¨ style. It is one in which the manager provides little or no direction and gives employees as much freedom as possible. All authority or power is given to the employees and they must determine goals, make decisions, and resolve problems on their own. I’ve always associated this style with leaders who are lazy and ineffective. Perhaps there are highly technical vocations where skills sets of employees allow for such autonomy but policing is not one of them.
Somewhere in between the two extremes lies the democratic leader. The democratic leadership style is also called the participative style as it encourages employees to be a part of the decision making. The democratic manager keeps his or her employees informed about everything that affects their work and shares decision making and problem solving responsibilities. This style requires the leader to be a coach who has the final say, but gathers information from staff members before making a decision.
Democratic leadership can produce high quality and high quantity work for long periods of time. Many employees like the trust they receive and respond with cooperation, team spirit, and high morale.
In my experience, I’ve found that extremists on any subject matter are often incapable of seeing an opposing viewpoint. However, in policing, it is difficult (and perhaps unpopular) to find yourself labeled as a democratic leader. The very term gives the perception of weakness and lack of discipline. If orders aren’t being barked at subordinates and general orders aren’t being recited along with the throwing down of the proverbial hammer, then the leader is somehow ineffective.
Those critics couldn’t be more wrong. I’ve long struggled with the molds we create in policing. Leaders often create other leaders in their own image and the “like think” produces more clones that lose their individuality and personality attempting to fit in. When I was promoted to sergeant, my lieutenant told me that I was too “kind” to the officers. My daily roll call was a dialogue and not the monologue to which he was accustomed. He operated in the autocratic style and felt I should as well. And so I tried. For a solid week, I morphed my personality and tried on my dictator persona only to find it wasn’t a very good fit. I marched into his office and told him that my way was different but it was equally effective.
In my present position as Watch Commander of the midnight shift, I am often told about the perceptions that other command level officers have of my leadership style and their assumptions about how it manifests on my shift. Interestingly enough, giving discipline has never been a weakness for me. In fact, I find that if it is administered fairly and consistently, most officers accept it. I use it as an opportunity for coaching and redirection and find that officers respond very well to correction when offered respectfully. The key is to discipline without judgment and understand that the actions are being called into question and not the person. Then we move on to the work that needs to be done.
The most effective leaders are those who know precisely which leadership style to apply given the circumstances. In emergency situations, the autocratic style is the most appropriate. In most other situations, it is the least effective.
And so I reject the phrase, “Perception is reality”. In fact, most of the time our perception of things is just our own skewed lenses. Because something appears to be one way does not necessarily mean that it is. Never mistake kindness for weakness.