Revolutionizing Policing Through Servant-Leadership and Quality Management

By Bill Gardner and John Reece, Ph.D
The empowerment of law enforcement employees by their leaders can lead to widespread enthusiasm and creative problem solving in the workplace.


The focus of the last 10 years of an emerging law enforcement leader’s career has focused on working, studying, and preparing for a top leadership position. This individual has passed the rigors of testing for sergeant, lieutenant, commander, or deputy chief. The leader has graduated from a prestigious law enforcement leadership school such as the FBI National Academy, and may have completed a baccalaureate or graduate degree. That professional now competes for and obtains the position of police chief, sheriff, or director.

When this executive enters the door of the new agency, whether it has 10 or several hundred employees, the leader learns that staff morale is low, trust levels between ranks in the organization and with the community are low, financial support from elected officials is in jeopardy, and crime fighting and crime prevention practices are second-rate. The new senior manager’s shiny collar brass suddenly feels very heavy. How does the new leader resolve the dilemma between the opportunities presented by the newly gained power and authority with the discouraging reality of skepticism and widespread apathy within the agency? Further, the new top manager knows the community and local government leaders depend on the agency to deliver excellent services soon. Where does the leader begin?


Law enforcement agency executives are accountable to their political leaders, their communities, and their employees for inspiring leadership and effective management. In today’s demanding social and political environment, the executives will fail if they do not meet those demands. Established leaders or newly selected administrators face the same challenge: serve the needs of their primary constituencies or fail. 

Success requires enlightened leadership practices.1 Many researchers have argued that personal leadership behavior is the area the law enforcement leader has the most control over.2 Next, the executive consciously can select the finest management systems required to implement quality services. Finally, the top manager must provide the specific skills training and education to qualify and empower frontline staff to deliver exceptional policing services. Once employees experience the satisfaction of their own success, they yearn for more. Experience has shown that when community members and elected officials witness excellence in law enforcement practices, high levels of trust and support will follow soon.

Transitioning an agency to an internally and externally effective workplace is an important task leaders must undertake. How do leaders guarantee that frontline staff and first-line supervisors have the same mission and behavioral values as the chief executive? More so, how does that top manager ensure all employees are competent in the skills needed to identify and analyze community problems and produce innovative solutions?

Executives must create a department where employees are excited to come to work, zealous about getting mission-driven results, and empowered to take skilled initiative. This workplace is a law enforcement agency where constant learning and improvement exemplify agency culture. This special organization is rich with frontline employees cherishing the philosophy of teamwork, information-sharing, problem solving, and mutual accountability.

Top policing leaders should embrace the principles of servant-leadership, employ quality management (QM) practices, and teach staff members the disciplines required for such service delivery. Servant-leadership inspires trust and cooperation inside and outside the organization. Next, when executives and their top management teams commit to the methodologies of QM, long-term effectiveness can be maximized. Finally, the executive must establish a continuous learning culture where the skills required for delivering QM services are institutionalized.

Mr. Gardner, a retired police chief from the Grand Junction, Colorado, Police Department, heads the Public Safety Department at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.
Mr. Gardner, a retired police chief from the Grand Junction, Colorado, Police Department, heads the Public Safety Department at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.
Dr. Reece is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction and the former director of the institution’s Western Colorado Peace Officers Academy.
Dr. Reece is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction and the former director of the institution’s Western Colorado Peace Officers Academy.


Despite the overwhelming demands placed on the 21st century policing executive, the one thing leaders absolutely control is their own behavior. Executives will more likely earn the respect of their staff by displaying traits such as humility, trustworthiness, vision, inspiration, empathy, cleverness, and loyalty. The traits of leaders most likely to fail include insensitivity to others, intimidation, arrogance, lack of trustworthiness, and micro-management.3 Hence, the concept of law enforcement executives serving the legitimate needs of their staff, as well as the needs of citizens, offers leaders a new and powerful paradigm.

Effective law enforcement leadership involves an affinity for relying on autocratic leadership decisions or democratic decision-making processes. Of course, police executives are looked to for command decisions in circumstances, such as crisis or tragedy. Yet, research has proven that over time, leaders who provide direction but avoid domination and encourage participation, mutual respect, and independence of thought achieve higher-quality organizational results.4 Servant-leadership theory, then, is the ideal behavioral model to influence the law enforcement agency’s culture to practice democratic problem solving and decision making.

Servant-leadership theory, at its simplest, requires that leaders internalize leadership as a calling to serve others before self. While servant-leadership has deep roots in philosophical and spiritual literature, the concept has been embraced by chief executive officers in the American business sector for years.5 Such leaders behave as ethical stewards of the power given to them. They use their position’s power to increase levels of trust and loyalty throughout the workplace. This leadership practice increases the propensity of staff to become invested in the leader’s vision because that vision also includes the staff’s legitimate motivational needs.

The notion that servant-leaders are soft is a myth. Servant-leadership focuses on inner strength, and its practitioners have unshakable ethical principles. Such leaders have internalized courage to act in the best interests of the community and the law enforcement organization before any one individual.

Leaders who model the behavior of considering others’ needs before their own can create a new dynamic in their department. One noted researcher has documented that humility in leaders is the number one predictor of widespread organizational loyalty.6 Because people trust in their leadership, these executives are poised to introduce the principles of commitment to the larger community and the organization. Organizational pride, individual self-confidence, and teamwork then follow.

Loyalty and trust work in unison with the employee motivational needs of mutual respect, camaraderie, appreciation, and self-actualization—feelings of making a difference in the world.7 When leaders have succeeded in building trust and respect at all levels of their organization, the stage is set for implementing QM systems. In short, loyalty and admiration of leaders precedes change.

“Servant-leadership theory...requires that leaders internalize leadership as a calling to serve others before self.”

Characteristics of the Servant-Leader

  • Listening: identifying, clarifying, and reflecting on the needs of the group
  • Empathy: seek first to understand employees and community
  • Healing: transforming the organization and integrating people and systems
  • Awareness: both of self and of issues involving ethics and values
  • Persuasion: servant-leaders seek to persuade and build consensus rather than coerce
  • Conceptualization: seeing greatness balanced by operational awareness
  • Foresight: using the intuitive part of the mind to build on lessons for the future
  • Stewardship: holding the organization as a trust for the larger good of society
  • Commitment to people: valuing employees as humans and developing them
  • Community building: taking responsibility for making the agency larger than work
Larry C. Spears, ed., Reflections on Leadership (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1995)


Law enforcement executives committed to high performance can embrace and manage their organizations through QM best practices. These systems inspire employee initiative through emphasis on guiding principles and core values instead of rules and regulations. QM organizations combine high levels of creativity with the discipline of regularly checking data to see which strategies are working and which are not. These types of processes, once understood and practiced by the staff, ideally lend themselves to meeting modern policing demands. The power of the QM model lies in synthesizing the motivational needs of employees with the work strategies that meet the agency’s and community’s needs.

Servant-Leadership and Quality Management

Research has shown that the leadership of senior management is the key factor in making a QM program succeed. Autocratic executives often create an admirable vision for their agency, but fail while trying to implement it. Leaders may see the vision as a top-down directive, rather than a noble cause. Such leaders see coercion and sanctions as the solutions to resistance to change. They fail to take personal responsibility to instill their vision in the hearts and souls of the staff. Changing organizational culture is not a top-down event; it is an inspirational journey led by a committed, tireless leader and leadership team, each personally communicating, listening, and clarifying the organization’s new direction through passion and sincerity.

This combination of authentic leadership strategies provides leaders with the realistic chance to create enduring transformational change. Externally, the model builds citizen confidence in their law enforcement agency. As success occurs, trust levels will rise among the citizens. Equally important is the transformation of employees into energized problem solvers. As one observer wrote, management research over the past several decades consistently has found that when employees feel valued by their bosses, productivity, quality, and teamwork accelerate.8 The law enforcement executive who creates systems to meet community service requirements as well as the motivational needs of employees, has a recipe for success.

Creation of the Learning Culture

The prevalence of servant-leadership and QM depends upon institutionalizing continuous learning as a way of doing business. The executive and the leadership team must take several steps in creating the learning culture.

Leaders Become Teachers and Coaches

When a work team brings a problem to its supervisor, that leader’s preferred response should be to initiate inquiry and dialogue.9 Leaders should teach their officers effective problem solving methods. First, team members should ask what steps have been taken to size up the problem and what the possible and most likely causes are. Next, they should ask what solutions lend themselves to best solving or improving the status of the problem and what resources are required and available. Before implementing a solution, the team must consider what could go wrong with the strategy they choose.10

Learn and Practice Leadership Flexibility

Leaders need to assess when a work group needs direction. Perhaps they cannot solve a problem, or they need an injection of leadership energy because of lost confidence. For example, a newly created narcotics task force may hesitate to make decisions. In this case, the leader needs to provide the group direction with specific goals and rigid timelines. On the other hand, a usually top-notch investigative team may be embroiled in conflict, arguing over the future strategy in a homicide case. In this instance, team members may need a reminder of their strong capabilities and past successes. Situational leadership becomes a key skill for the development of the transformational leader.11

Key Factors in Successful QM Programs by Percentage of Respondents

Senior management leadership82%
Clear vision60%
Employee training41%
Recipe for reengineering36%
Cross-functional teams31%
Financial resources24%
Information technology15%
From: Oxford Associates’ Survey of Fortune 500 Companies, 1993

Reinforce Quality Results Through Timely Recognition

Appreciation by leaders reinforces agency culture through validating positive behavioral change in employees. If staff members feel that appreciation from top management has been lacking, discouragement likely will encompass part of the agency culture. When duly earned, sincere gratitude from a leader becomes even more important in this instance.12 Some agencies have made it a tradition to have an informal “stand-up meeting” with all staff invited on a monthly or more frequent basis. Instead of a formal meeting, the executive greets employees in a large hallway or lobby area, encouraging positive information sharing and praising recent employee wins. Broad communication and appreciation then become internalized cultural habits within the organization.

Principles of Quality Management

  1. Quality of service or product is the top priority of the organization.
  2. The customer defines quality. Thus, all effective community-based policing strategies are, in reality, quality management systems with targeted customer-defined outcomes.
  3. Equally important to quality management is a leader’s delivery of quality service to the organization’s internal customers—the employees.
  4. The top executive holds responsibility for the essential synergy of creating, communicating, and enrolling the energies of staff through the organization’s vision, mission, and values.
  5. Employee work behavior is governed more by mission and values (guiding principles) than by rules, policies, and procedures. Top management must change its culture in this respect.
  6. Organizational problem solving is required at every level in the agency.
  7. Teamwork has priority over individual effort.
  8. Mutual accountability is emphasized as being as important as individual accountability.
  9. Regular analysis of data concerning goals and performance outcomes determines changes in organizational tactics, strategy, and resource deployment.
Edward Deming, Out of the Crisis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986).

Educate Leaders in Servant Leadership and Quality Management Principles

As funding permits, the agency executive should send leaders at all levels to modern leadership development seminars based around servant-leadership and QM principles. One way to economize this education is to bring the instructors to the agency. Another approach is to build a relationship with college business or public administration faculty members. These professional educators may be willing to donate time teaching modern leadership skills as part of their institution’s community service obligation.

Dramatize Agency Learning Through Teamwork

Debriefings held after a traumatic incident offer the opportunity for both coaching and teaching team learning through dialogue. This encourages the affected group members to share their views without direct criticism and, most important, without personal emotion.13 Major case investigations or planned patrol responses to large events are other outstanding examples of opportunities to build team learning. The leader (e.g., sergeant, lieutenant, or captain) can outline the status of the situation and encourage positive dialogue. The only enforcement role the formal leader plays is to ensure everyone’s ideas are considered fairly. In these examples, employees learn how to treat each other with respect and, as such, feel safe to contribute positive critiques. The group learns that more can be accomplished as a team.

Empower Staff to Take Initiative

The overarching goal of the executive is to empower and liberate employees to take initiative appropriate to their mission and assignment. For instance, a leader aims to reinvent the existing delivery system for a community policing service. After executives clearly have communicated the goals, work-team membership, leadership structure, timeline, and availability of resources, team members tackle the assignment. Several months later, but within the timeline given, the team presents top management with a new structure, complete with an implementation plan and ways to measure results. As a result of empowering staff, both leaders and employees have succeeded in their tasks.


Agency transformation from a traditional top-down autocratic model to a servant-leadership model sets the stage for an effective law enforcement organization. When leadership rooted in humility combines with quality management principles, the employees, leadership team, and community-orientated policing strategies thrive. A law enforcement agency directed by a servant-leader with engaging and passionate vision, mission, and values creates a culture of individual and mutual accountability. The leader’s empowerment of work teams can lead to widespread enthusiasm and creative problem solving.

Accountability remains of paramount importance in any law enforcement agency. By adding mutual accountability and retaining the traditional systems of individual accountability, a culture of “response-ability” becomes possible.14 The first key to such a transition is the executive’s embracement of servant-leadership.

Officers and their civilian work-partners demand a strong leader. Yet, the strength of that leader’s influence increases exponentially when earned through admiration, not decree. Chiefs, sheriffs, and directors who see leadership as their calling must use the power of their positions to protect the organization internally from lazy, incompetent, uncaring, unethical, and illegal behaviors. Conversely, they must build trust and motivation levels through sincere work to teach, empower, and fulfill employees’ needs to make a difference through their careers.

QM systems provide the vehicle for agency leaders, as well as their top managers, to organize staff and processes to constantly seek quality results. Vision, mission, and value-based policing, where every level of leadership is accountable for team building and problem solving, energizes the entire workplace. Top management can encourage evolution and change by regularly using data to analyze the results of the various work teams’ efforts in a positive and supportive manner.

Instilling a culture of continual team learning in a law enforcement agency brings about a model of excellence.15 When executives become rigorous teachers, instead of merely tough enforcers, they energize employees and the organization to seek an excellence that is both worthy and enduring.

“These systems inspire employee initiative through emphasis on guiding principles and core values instead of rules and regulations.”


1 Stephen R. Covey, Principle-Centered Leadership (New York, NY: Free Press Publishing, 2003).

2 Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001).

3 James R. Evans, Total Quality: Management, Organization, and Strategy, 4th ed. (Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western, 2005).

4 Charles Manz and Henry Sims, Super Leadership: Leading Others to Lead Themselves (New York, NY: Berkeley Books, 1993).

5 Robert K. Greenleaf, “Life’s Choices and Markers” in Reflections on Leadership, ed. Larry C. Spears (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), 17-21.

6 Collins, 2001.

7 Fredrick Herzberg, Work and the Nature of Man (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1966).

8 Evans, 2005.

9 Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of a Learning Organization (New York, NY: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1990).

10 Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe, The New Rational Manager (Princeton, NJ: Kepner-Tregoe, Inc., 1997).

11 Paul Hersey, Kenneth H. Blanchard, and Dewey E. Johnson, Management of Organizational Behavior: Leading Human Resources (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Publishing, 2001).

12 B.F. Skinner, About Behaviorism (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1974).

13 Senge, 1990.

14 Covey, 2003.

15 Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, In Search of Excellence (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992).