By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski  |  01/31/2024

leadership styles in law enforcement

In today's fast-paced world, there are many different leadership styles. An effective leadership style in law enforcement is essential because it ensures fairness and accountability. Police leadership style also serves as the backbone of a properly functioning law enforcement agency.

Effective law enforcement leadership is accomplished through both experience and applying a leadership style that fosters motivation, integrity, and a collaborative working environment with subordinates.

Developing Subordinates

Law enforcement officers quickly recognize a law enforcement leader who has the ability to lead by example.

This type of leader clearly cares for his or her employees and has the right M.O. for the law enforcement field. Charismatic leaders develop those under their authority by:

  • Displaying empathy and care
  • Providing clear guidance on the work that needs to be done, based on their own law enforcement experience
  • Supporting all employees who do difficult work in the field

These types of law enforcement leaders provide clear communication and earn the trust of subordinates. Often, they display their support of subordinates when issues arise with others in a police leadership role, such as a higher-level supervisor.

Law enforcement leaders who go to bat for their subordinates when problems occur are more likely to develop employees who are fully committed to the job.

Skills and Characteristics of Good Leaders in Law Enforcement

Law enforcement agencies depend on well-trained, efficient law enforcement leaders. Law enforcement executives depend on police leaders at various levels along the chain of command to uphold policies and procedures and maintain accountability.

They also ensure that law enforcement officers properly serve the community, maintain high morale, and communicate effectively.


Maintaining high morale is an important role for a law enforcement leader because high morale sponsors proactive, professional policing. Maintaining high morale can be accomplished by recognizing officers’ efforts within a law enforcement agency. Ideally, an effective police leader takes the time and effort to recognize the contributions of others by giving awards when a law enforcement officer goes above and beyond normal duties.


Police officers benefit from law enforcement leaders who invest significant time in their employees. Police leaders who utilize a good leadership style often focus on the professional development of other officers and may encourage career development through formal education.

For instance, leaders may advocate for their employees so that they have the opportunity to work in specialized units or rise through the ranks as they work to become future leaders.

Law enforcement leaders today utilize their experience to relate to their employees. They take the time to help officers work through complicated calls for service in the field and develop others’ policing and leadership skills in a constantly evolving environment.

Building Relationships

An effective police leader finds the balance between providing the support a subordinate needs while also providing the autonomy that patrol personnel need to make their own decisions in the field.

This type of leader will typically build crucial relationships with other officers and patrol deputies through providing frontline personnel with mentorship programs to foster professional development and communication skills.

Police work can be highly challenging, and new officers benefit from good leaders who listen actively, set clear expectations, and support others in tumultuous times.

The most efficient leaders build the legitimacy of a police department through direct contact with community members and promote community-oriented policing that fosters trust in police forces.

The Characteristics Needed by Strong Leaders

The characteristics of commanding officers and criminal justice leaders include providing specific mission buy-in by empowering his or her employees to be a part of the decision-making process within the police department.

Enabling others to act and allowing members to have a voice in decisions that ultimately impact them in the field – such as patrol zone assignments and other daily tasks – is a good way to build morale and strengthen the police department.

Commanding officers and police chiefs with strong situational leadership skills can utilize different police leadership styles, based on the situation.

Situational leadership often comes into play. For example, there may be times when a leader must exert full control through an autocratic style, such as when evolving discipline is necessary or when his or her employees are in a high-risk situation (such as members of a SWAT team).

When the opportunity exists to empower others to make decisions, such leaders can then transition to a transformational leadership style.

Transformational Leadership in Policing

A transformational leader often has a charismatic leadership style that fosters motivation and hard work in others. These leaders inspire their employees through offering practical and emotional support, providing the resources needed to do the job, and encouraging employees to find new ways to grow professionally.

Transformational leaders create an environment where employees desire to go above and beyond the required expectations because they are working toward shared goals within an agency.

Also, transformational leadership helps officers to create new, problem-solving approaches to improve community safety.

For example, a new officer may have a different idea for resolving a problem or crime trend within the community. A toxic leader would not be open to hearing new ideas and would take a top-down approach.

By contrast, a transformational leader would listen to the officer's idea and would permit the officer to try out the new idea if possible.

Toxic Leadership in Policing

There are few things that impact the morale of a police agency more than toxic leadership. Police work – and police leadership – is often highly stressful.

To many officers, dealing with the stress caused by toxic leadership is often more stressful than traumatic events in the field, the danger of the job, or uncooperative individuals.

Toxic leadership in policing exists when leaders force their officers to carry out their commands, based on constant threats of career retribution.

Toxic leaders may also give out promotions based on favoritism and not merit. Providing conflicting guidance, creating conflict within the workplace, and pinning a leader's mistakes on employees are all forms of toxic leadership.

Police officers are constantly faced with a great deal of challenges on a daily basis. However, effective leadership helps officers remain motivated and positive when experiencing those challenges.

Effective leaders will invest time and effort in their employees and create a work environment where employees look forward to coming to work and doing their best in the field.

Criminal Justice Degrees at American Public University

The University offers several bachelor’s and master’s degrees for aspiring law enforcement leaders. They include:

Note: This program is not designed to meet the educational requirements for professional licensure or certification in any state. This program has not been approved by any state professional licensing body and does not lead to any state-issued professional license.

About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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