Leadership Spotlight

Redefining Leadership Presence

A stock image of a male police officer.

“Great leaders don’t need to act tough. Their confidence and humility serve to underscore their toughness.”

—Simon Sinek1

The nature of law enforcement demands that those in a position of rank or authority maintain a “command presence” to be effective. This involves “essentially presenting yourself as someone in authority, trusted and respected.”2 On the street, officers learn to exude control, fearlessness, and an air of confidence and authority at all times. Research has shown that this helps keep them safe because they less likely will be confronted if they maintain this command presence.3

Law enforcement leaders need to have discussions with their personnel regarding when and how to effect a command presence. Unfortunately, it appears that there often may exist a one-size-fits-all method to how police departments approach both the definition and use of command presence among officers. This has been determined, in part, by law enforcement culture and expectations of the past.

However, what if we redefined command presence within agencies in terms of “command being present”? In this mind-set, strength and authority involve the ability to communicate and connect with self-confidence and humility and to use empathy while exuding care and compassion for others. This newly defined presence within police organizations would look and feel different from the command presence needed on the street. What would the effects be on morale, engagement, and performance? How would the climate change? According to research, the effects would be transformational.4

Studies also inform us that the difference between good and great leaders is their level of emotional intelligence, or the capacity to be aware of, control, and express their emotions, and ability to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.5 That sounds much like the concept of command being present in law enforcement. It represents a different way of connecting, motivating, supporting, and inspiring toward a common goal or vision, a hard-right turn from what we see as use of command presence on the streets. Leaders maintain their presence while conveying caring, compassion, and empathy. They have difficult conversations while maintaining an emotional and social connection with their people.

Police leaders may consider and accept that a different way of leading inside their departments is needed and that emotional intelligence is a key to making that shift. Fortunately, emotionally intelligent leadership is something that can be measured, assessed, groomed, learned, coached, and cultivated.

Marian Elizabeth “Beth” Coleman, an instructor in the Leadership Programs and Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. She can be reached at mecoleman@fbi.gov.


1 Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2014).
2 Heather M. Zoller and Gail Fairhurst, “Resistance Leadership: The Overlooked Potential in Critical Organization and Leadership Studies,” abstract, Human Relations 60, no. 9 (September 2007): 1331-1360, accessed December 18, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/211396657_Resistance_leadership_The_overlooked_potential_in_critical_organization_and_leadership_studies.
3 Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, “Heartless Bosses?” Harvard Business Review, December 2005, accessed December 18, 2019, https://hbr.org/2005/12/heartless-bosses.
4 Mitch Javidi and Brian Ellis, “Capturing the Moment: Counter-VUCA Leadership for 21st Century Policing,” Law Enforcement Today, September 15, 2016, accessed December 18, 2019, https://www.lawenforcementtoday.com/capturing-the-moment-counter-vuca-leadership-for-21st-century-policing/.
5 Michael Schneider, “A Google Study Revealed That the Best Managers Use Emotional Intelligence and Share This 1 Trait,” Inc., November 16, 2017, accessed December 16, 2019, https://www.inc.com/michael-schneider/a-google-study-revealed-that-best-managers-use-emotional-intelligence-share-this-1-trait.html.