How to Forge Adaptability in Police Leaders and Culture


Don Vandergriff and I have written a book together which will sometime in the near future be published. Much of what is written in the book was inspired by the ideas Don discussed in his book “Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War.” Our soon to be released book; “Adaptive Leader Handbook: Innovative Ways to Teach and Develop Your People” will adapt these principles along with the works of COL John Boyd, Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz, and others whose brilliant work forms the basis of what we do. Don and I have spent a good part of the last decade developing ways to teach people how to practice Boyd’s OODA loop (more on this in the upcoming book).

This is a short article on how we forge adaptability into our law enforcement culture.

The Adaptive Leader Methodology (ALM) is a cultural change, and not a prescribed list of tests and exercises, or stringent lesson plans and schedules. The Adaptive leader Methodology builds on the core principles and values referred to as “ethos.” Ethos represents the set of values common to all officers, elevated above that of individual ethics. Leaders who stand on that same elevated base with their officers now share their motivations and views on the world with the officers they lead. Because of the community that springs from an ethos, leaders of police officers enjoy simplified communications, moral understanding and implicit decision processes within our organization.

Ethos is defined as:

  • The foundation for the police officers total commitment to winning at low cost;
  • Exemplifying values, putting the mission first, trust, strength of character and restraint and
  • Absolute faith in oneself and one’s team.

The purpose of the ALM is creating leaders who understand and practice adaptability, while encouraging leaders to nurture this trait in their subordinates. A student that emerges from any leader-centric course that employs the ALM is adaptive and can demonstrate the ability to:

  • Rapidly distinguish between information that is useful in making decisions and that which is not pertinent;
  • Avoid the natural temptation to delay their decisions until more information makes the situation clearer, at the risk of losing the initiative;
  • Avoid the pitfall of thinking that once the mission is underway, more information will clarify the tactical picture; and
  • Feel the frontline tempo, discern patterns among the chaos, and make critically important decisions in seconds.

The ALM also develops the following traits:

  • Strength of character;
  • Experience and intuition through repetitive skills training;
  • An understanding of the value of self-study; and
  • Proper understanding of a command climate that promotes adaptability accepts change and encourages innovation.

Officers will also need a greater variety of skills and a wider breadth of knowledge to meet the adaptive challenges they confront, both in problem solving and in fighting crime. ALM will develop five key attributes of adaptability:

  • Intuitive-this enables rapid decision-making without conscious awareness or effort;
  • Critical thinker-the ability to achieve understanding, evaluates viewpoints, and solves problems;
  • Creative Thinker-equally important, called fingerspitzenfuhl or the feeling in the tip of one’s fingers. Otherwise known as tactical judgment, recognition primed decision making or intuitive decision making.
  • Self-Aware-an understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses;
  • Social Skills-the ability, to assess people’s strengths and weaknesses, the use of communication skills, and the art of listening.

The 5 key attributes are critical to being a good decision maker an adaptive individual and community oriented officer. Ethos; attributes, characteristics and values listed above have been talked about in the law enforcement profession for years—the goal is to develop and etch them at the forefront of our minds by conducting valuable training and education while setting high professional standards that focus on creating and nurturing these characteristics along with the critical tasks necessary to execute the department mission and intent.

The ALM is comprised of three elements that will enable a leader-centric development institution to achieve the goal of producing leaders that are adaptive. These consist of: (1) a police culture of learning, which includes a chain of command and offices that oversee leader-centric shifts and operational units; (2) a curriculum significantly broad to provide the necessary cognitive and creative development to nurture adaptability; and (3) highly qualified mentors/coaches. All three must exist in concert in order to effectively enable adaptability.

First, establishing an ALM primarily requires creating a “learning organization” with a climate that frees its mentors/coaches to focus on what is important: teaching, facilitating, mentoring and evaluating a officers grasp of adaptability. As Brig. Gen. David A. Fastabend and Robert Simpson relate, “the learning organization overcomes the impediment of centralized responsibility by instilling within the organization’s members a thirst for creativity and hunger for a challenge.” It will require a thorough understanding of education and training, as well as what defines learning, or the acquiring of knowledge.

The ALM, occurring within a “learning organization,” will allow officers to:

  • Experience the emotional trauma of failing within a safe, face-saving environment; and
  • Find answers for themselves and build intuition – a necessary trait of adaptive leaders.

The learning environment also supports and understands that the ALM is where students become members of the course when they are:

  • Left to do as much as possible, from planning training to making and executing recommendations to improve the course;
  • Allowed to fail, as long as they show signs of learning, and do not repeat mistakes (those who made a mistake in the act of doing something will attempt to explain why they made their error); and
  • Pushed to seek answers, and to produce adaptive leaders familiar with tasks that may comprise their solutions to tactical and non-tactical problems. They understand how to employ tasks together to solve problems.

Can you re-imagine a police culture that allows you to adapt and thrive while solving real time problems, conflict and crisis, efficiently and effectively? I have the vision forged in my mind, but seeing and knowing is not enough, being willing is not enough. It’s time for us to do!

Stay Oriented!


More on how to implement these ideas read our new book: