I’ve been working in the police leadership arena for several years now. It’s been an interesting time, and mixed in with several jobs at the College of Policing and now HMIC. I’ve had the privilege to look at what the future of leadership for the police may look like, and that’s from a structural, developmental and behavioural point of view. I must have had hundreds of conversations with frontline officers, academics, and senior leaders about what leadership means to them, and there’s a common theme: Leadership in the police conjures up a very specific image in people’s heads, and this image presents both challenges and opportunities.
I have had the chance to take several training sessions over the previous weeks, and I asked the attendees:
“When I say ‘Police Leadership’ to you, what image does it create?”
The answers were as follows:
- Late 40’s, early 50’s
- Has ‘presence’
- Makes decisions quickly
- Athletic build
There were some more, but these formed the general themes across most of the sessions. Now, the interesting thing to me, was the level of consistency that these answers seemed to generate. It suggests that we all may have a very strong image of what a police leader is in our heads.
A good friend who also works as an Insp in a county force discusses this as ‘Braveheart Leadership,’ and he allies it with strong command, charisma, and courage. He also talks about going, ‘over the top,’ showing some dash and some daring. He’s an introvert, and often points out the war stories that people tell, pointing out that it is often those with loud, authoritative voices and quick decision making that seem to find favour, whilst those more thoughtful and quiet seem to be given the back seat repeatedly. You could say that the media has a pretty strong hand in developing this idea too, and if you look at the content of most ‘fly on the wall’ police documentaries, there’s a type of work that seems to grab the headlines and the camera – and it’s not being sat with a vulnerable 15 year old in hospital awaiting a mental health assessment.
As an officer who has sat through many ‘refs’ (that’s a meal break for those not in the police) breaks with my team, the amount of ‘war stories’ that officers tell increase over level of service. Discussions of big public order incidents, or frightening confrontation and fighting feature regularly, as do discussions of how particular incidents containing conflict shape the way that we view the world. ‘Us vs. Them,’ ‘Holding the Line,’ and being ‘up for it‘ or ‘handy’ in terms of handling conflict are common references/ideas, drawing influence from the military and times of war.
I don’t think this is too much of a suprise though, it’s very emotional when you’re in a physical fight. It’s scary, it can obviously affect your ability to work, and the thought of how close your back up is, is always at the forefront of your mind. If I could guess (and I worked Blackpool Central on Response for many years and have seen my own fair share of conflict), I’d say that these incidents build up a fairly solid veneer of trauma in most officers, so it doesn’t surprise me that this veneer shapes the way that we view and see the world – and leadership in particular.
It is also worth thinking about how the work that officers do has shaped their idea of leadership over the last few decades. We have had a mixture of New Public Management Leaders who discuss ‘the business,’ our ‘resources,’ and lots of things to do with ‘demand management.’ These terms have been reinforced by ‘war cabinet’ meetings that are sometimes still ongoing daily in some forces, where how many burglaries we had the night before need an immediate ‘action plan‘ and ‘diversion of resources‘ to ‘maximise potential detection probability…‘
This type of work lends itself to command based leadership. Operational decisions are made in the short term, to short term spikes in crime. Long term decision making takes a back burner, as do strategic infrastructure things like IT and our estates. The end result is an environment where a particular ‘kind’ of leader can thrive. It’s group think at its best:
So, as we speculate on what may ’cause’ our idea of leadership to emerge, it’s time to put that idea into the current context of what’s going on around us.
The Police are seeing huge changes in demand, facilitated by an external environment that is changing so rapidly that even experts in technology can’t keep up. The internet is changing the way that we investigate even the most basic of crimes, not because it is an ‘essential part of any investigation,’ but simply because it is now an essential part of life. Across the Western world, crime types are changing. Traditional property based crime is falling, and we are seeing the way we view and deal with vulnerability revolutionised. These changes are causing huge pressure on the frontline, and in the context of austerity, they are compounded to the point of making officers feel almost left behind.
If I were to point towards where the police need significant development, I wouldn’t be pointing towards places that other people can’t see or feel when they are involved in police work. We will still face public disorder, burglary and assaults as a matter of course, but these will be inter-mixed with child protection, mental health and social deprivation. No matter how much these areas of work present as alien to officers long in the tooth or favouring traditional types of police work, they are here, and we must adapt – because the police do not dictate the requests that the public/society make of them.
Now I’m not saying that drawing a defining line defining what we do isn’t useful, I’m just saying that that line will not be where we may prefer it to be. The problems facing police are complicated, and they require fundamental changes in infrastructure of forces and re-investment in areas previously left untouched. I remember being sat around a table at a conference with a chief officer, who stated, ‘We don’t have the resources, I’m not even turning that stone over…‘ Now whilst this may be admirable in terms of protecting current levels of service, it presents an awful strategic approach, mired in the short term. Basically, ignoring hidden demand will only bite you in places like officer wellbeing and the ability to respond to 999 calls within a few years – ignore it and the short term benefit will be greatly outweighed by the long term cost – especially in terms of looking after our officers.
So what does all this mean for police leadership?
Whilst we may still need our police leaders to protect the ability to respond to public disorder and traditional crime, we also need leaders who will look to the future and make difficult decisions about what a force actually looks like and how it responds to varying calls demanding lots of differing levels of service. Demanding omni-competence of our officers may mean that we create a perfect storm of pressure, where every officer has to be everything, to everyone. This is not sustainable, and we have to recognise that our people have strengths in particular areas, where they may serve the public at their best. Not everyone on a team can be a digital investigation whizz or a vulnerability expert, just as not everyone can be public order die hard or a ‘handy‘ thief catcher. This is the start of acknowledging that we need to be more sophisticated in the way that we send our officers to jobs, and ensure that we have high levels of skill in particular people, rather than average levels of skill across the board.
We need a selection of leaders with different strengths, some of whom can manage difficult partnerships with IT companies over time, developing tools that mix operational need with managing public value. We need leaders who can work in long term collaborations, developing approaches to vulnerability that concentrate on prevention and protection, not just catch and convict. We need leaders who can spot the changes on the horizon and put in places long term plans to transform police organisations into something that roll with the times, rather than respond in atrophy to demand that we saw coming a long time ago. And, we need leaders who can confidently lead large incidents of public disorder, and command critical incidents with skill and care.
If you can find me a leader that can do all that with equal skill and ability, I shall eat my hat at 2am refs… So if we bear the difference that we need in mind, it makes sense that we consider how we select and develop our leaders now?
We still need command based leadership. We still need levels of process and management. We still need leaders who can work with others and plan for the long term, chipping away at entrenched societal problems. The trick – and not just for constabularies – is to recognise that the stories that we tell, and the stories that we hear, may not be the stories that we need. The romantic idea of the police leader, isn’t in kilter with the forces that we now need, and at its basest level this is abundantly clear just from a diversity point of view. Taking it past protected characteristics though, and into diversity of thought, what we really need is an acknowledgement that the ‘stories’ that create our idea of what a leader is may actually be creating issues for our organisations long term.
I spoke with an officer during a lecture several weeks ago, and the discussion captured some of the risks around the impact of our ‘idea’ of leadership:
“I met one of those Direct Entry Supers the other day. They just… didn’t come across as a leader. She was small, not imposing, there was no… gravitas...” (paraphrased)
We spoke about this comment in the lecture, and as we delve under the surface of ‘gravitas’, we arrived at the current ‘idea’ of policing leadership. That idea had caused a judgement to be made in a moment of interaction – something that we cops are very good at. It illustrates how our ‘idea’ of leadership informs our judgements about what we are looking for – whether the organisation physically needs it or not.
Each constabulary will have its own idea of what a leader is. This is fine, as long as that idea is sufficiently wide enough to meet the service that we propose to provide. It’s no longer good enough to rely on a ‘type’ or an ‘idea’ of leadership that only fits times of crisis – mainly because over 95% of what we do doesn’t function in crisis. We have moved on from that, and the service we offer is wider and more complicated than ever envisioned even a decade ago.
It’s time to develop what we think of as leadership within our constabularies. Allowing leadership to become a particular ‘thing,’ or come from a ‘particular pathway’ can cause problems for the way that we approach even the most seemingly insignificant call. In fact, as we delve into many incidents that we haven’t previously considered to be ‘police work,’ we see shoots of warning that indicate on repeat offending – sometimes of the most serious kind. If we really want to get serious about developing our understanding, we need to change the idea of what constitues a police leader, and if you were going to ask me my advice on how to start to ‘open’ the idea up, the first thing I would say, is:
“Change the stories. They are more powerful than you think.“