Leadership Spotlight

Rethinking Law Enforcement Leadership Culture

Submitted by Marian Elizabeth “Beth” Coleman, an instructor in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy.

A stock image of people conducting a meeting.

I spend a lot of time listening to law enforcement leaders. Often, I hear the struggles and challenges they face with recruitment, retention, and leadership development/promotion. It has caused me to think a lot about how we can tackle those challenges in today’s tough environment. The answer I keep coming back to is that perhaps we need to rethink our culture to better fit the modern workforce.

We talk a lot about culture change in the classes I teach. Making the right changes in a way that “sticks” is the hard part. Outdated methods of doing things do not serve law enforcement anymore. Maybe the way we have developed into the current culture is misaligned with core values. That may just be the best starting point.

So, how do we do that? I offer four steps.

  1. Get your team — the right team — together, not just your command staff. Identify the right people to have at your table. Do you have employees weighing in who have the information you did not know you needed? Are there people who feel they can share and speak up? As leader, have you created the kind of safety that allows for an environment where everyone feels free to bring their ideas, observations, thoughts, and creativity to the group? If you do not have that, this is where you must begin.
  2. Next, review the core values vital to your department. List them and discuss what they mean to every person at the table. Reach a baseline agreement of each core value’s significance to your agency. Write out those definitions, formalize them, and have each team member sign them like a contract, reinforcing common understanding of and commitment to each one of them. If you cannot gain consensus, maybe a particular core value needs to be updated or even dropped from the list as it may no longer serve its purpose.
  3. Then, consider what your department rewards and punishes. In theory, this should align with your core values. During this phase, brainstorm the group’s thoughts on the department’s real and perceived rewards and punishments. Do not discount perception in this exercise. It will be vitally important for the team to be attuned to others' thoughts, feelings, and perceptions about the behaviors being rewarded and punished and, more important, if they consider them to be in alignment with the core values espoused by the leadership team. Any detected hypocrisy will kill this entire endeavor more quickly than anything. The group should consider the questions “How do we get an accurate idea of how everyone thinks of, feels about, and perceives the culture within the department?” and “How do we get an honest assessment we can rely on to make the desired changes?”
  4. Once team members get the information they feel is accurate, create a document or spreadsheet with the core values, rewards, punishments, and anecdotal data. Do it in such a way that you can use the data to see what behaviors and perceptions do not align with the core values. Once the group can see in front of them what is working and what is not, it becomes easier to tackle the much bigger problem of what to do about it.1

“Weak leaders silence voice and shoot the messenger. Strong leaders welcome voice and thank the messenger. Great leaders build systems to amplify voice and elevate the messenger.”

— Adam Grant2

Assembling the right team, looking at the organization’s values, aligning them with rewards and punishment (prosocial behavior), and devising a game plan to realign require objective assessment of the strengths and weaknesses in the current organizational culture. A collaborative leadership style allowing for open and transparent interactions among the team and members of the organization is a prerequisite to the process.

Leadership is hard work. Think about your organization and the right team to begin this journey today.

Ms. Coleman can be reached at mecoleman@fbi.gov.


1 “Taking a Stand: How to Lead with Your Values,” Wharton@Work, University of Pennsylvania, April 2023, https://executiveeducation.wharton.upenn.edu/thought-leadership/wharton-at-work/2023/04/lead-with-your-values/.
2 Adam Grant, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things (New York: Penguin Audio, 2023), 196.