Leadership Spotlight

Prompting Reflection

A stock image of two men talking.

It can be easy, especially over lengthy periods of service, for officers to become set in their ways, develop an unhealthy attitude, or simply approach their job from a fixed perspective. Leaders, whether command staff or first-line supervisors, have ample opportunities to motivate their staff to stop, think about how they conduct themselves or carry out their duties, and determine whether they should alter their current practices.

While setting an example, providing instruction, and offering guidance all play important roles in leadership, so too does stimulating officers to reflect on their attitudes and tactics. It generates degrees of self-learning and introspection that may be much more effective and also result in longer-term impacts.

Several examples serve to illustrate such prods. Leaders will be able to think of or identify many others.

  • When challenging staff after receiving complaints of incivility or officiousness, try posing the question, “Would you want your sister or another member of your family to be spoken to or treated in that manner?”
  • When officers suggest that an issue is not “police business” or that they cannot make a difference, remind them of the words of Edmund Burke, the famous Irish statesman and philosopher: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”1
  • When discussing ethics with your teams, encourage them to use “the child test” regularly. This involves asking themselves what they would tell their children to do if in the same situation. If they would not tell a child to do what they are thinking of doing, they probably should think again.
  • When briefing squads in relation to events, such as large gatherings, parades, demonstrations, or rallies, where public disorder or a terrorist attack could occur, leaders must dispel any complacency among officers. This holds especially true if the occasions occur regularly. It may help to remind them: “Every day that passes when nothing happens here brings us one day closer to the day when something will.”

Of course, police officers are intelligent individuals who can work things out for themselves. However, sometimes it does no harm to prompt them to do so.

John Sellar OBE, who has served with both the Scottish Police Service and the United Nations, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at johnmsellar@gmail.com.


1 Flavia Medrut, “22 Incredible Edmund Burke Quotes That Still Resonate Today,” Goalcast, May 29, 2019, accessed September 17, 2020, https://www.goalcast.com/2019/05/29/edmund-burke-quotes/.