Leadership Spotlight

Foundations of Leadership and Followership

A police officer outside wearing sunglasses with a vehicle in the background.

Leaders within law enforcement agencies have the opportunity to observe their personnel at various stages of their careers and in roles that range from general patrol to specialized investigative services or administration. Sometimes, leaders struggle with how to prioritize the investment in training initiatives to create a competent, independently operational police officer, especially in these challenging economic times. Should they focus on the specifics of operational requirements or the development of personal leadership competencies, and, if both, in what proportion?

The management of competencies as they relate to the professional practice of law enforcement is one issue being examined at the Ontario, Canada, Police College (OPC). This is a broad subject, so for the purpose of this article the author will focus on the amount of leadership-specific education provided to new police officers during their 12 weeks of Basic Constable Training at the Ontario academy. The decision to provide training designed to build leadership competence at the beginning of an officer’s career comes from several considerations, including operational requirements, career management, and risk management as they relate to professional law enforcement practices.

Within the OPC new-recruit training program, students receive four 90-minute sessions that deal with a specific aspect of leadership.

  • Leadership Principles and Organizational Awareness
  • Emotional Intelligence (includes a self-assessment)
  • Coach/Field Training Officer Expectations
  • Communicating Excellence/Professional Policing

Each of these subjects builds on the previous session, and all leadership materials are integrated to support training delivered on the Police Services Act of Ontario (Code of Conduct) and Ethics for Law Enforcement sessions.1 Briefly, the rationale for delivering these sessions resides in identifying areas where complaints occur most often from both internal and external stakeholders, including members of the public, managers, colleagues, and agency support staff members.

Leadership Principles and Organizational Awareness provides new police officers the opportunity to reflect on their understanding of what it means to be a leader and, at times, a follower. They have the chance to debate and consider the complexities of leadership and issues of accountability for their conduct, whether they are in charge of an accident scene or maintaining a security detail. Officers also are prodded to look at the structure of their police organizations to see what their careers can look like if they are disciplined enough to set realistic goals, continuously check in with their personal priorities, and build professional reputations.

The training on Emotional Intelligence involves recruits doing a self-assessment before the session starts. Based on those results, the facilitator guides students through the process of understanding what emotional intelligence is, what relevance it has to their current role/rank, and what implications this skill set has for future success both inside and outside the organization. During this training instructors review the research on the minimal impact that intelligence and technical skills have in differentiating individuals from their peers. This is especially important for law enforcement; a trainer suggested hiring applicants for their intellectual abilities, training  them for their technical skills, and firing them because of their lack of emotional intelligence.

Communicating Excellence/Professional Policing is the leadership session in which students review the mission and values statements for their respective organizations and create their own personal mission statements. They are asked to consider how they see their individual roles as professional police officers as part of the broader agency mandate. The process of communicating as a professional is very complex when officers interact with incredibly diverse stakeholder groups and where calls for service or self-directed contact with members of the public can be routine and repetitive more often than dynamic. Officers have to remain prepared for both and appreciate the situational variables that require them to make choices on different communication processes.

Once new officers leave OPC, they go through a period of training with their home police service and then are assigned to a coach/field training officer to guide them through the initial operational stages of their careers. The Coach/Field Training Officer Expectations session reminds new police officers they only have one opportunity to make a favorable first impression on their colleagues and supervisors that may follow them throughout their careers. Instructors also discuss their biggest fears in establishing a professional relationship with their coach officers and other peers during this orientation-and-initiation phase, as well as strategies to handle these situations if they arise.

When is it too early to invest in leadership training for police professionals? Every organization has to base that decision on budgeting and a needs assessment.  At OPC leaders hope that by investing early in the dialogue around leadership skills, they will establish a career best practice of professionalism that reflects on all law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. 

Ms. Irene Barath, an instructor with the Ontario, Canada, Police College in Aylmer, currently assigned to the FBI’s Leadership Fellows program, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.


For additional information see ServiceOntario, “Police Services Act,” http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/ (accessed December 15, 2014).