The Police Leader's True Work: Train Them, Trust Them, Let Them Do Their Job

“He who’s ranks are united in purpose will be victorious.” ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

For more than 40 years, police text books have written much about the centralized personnel system currently ingrained in most police agencies can be applied only effectively in a stable environment. Policy, procedures, standard operating procedures and checklists all rule decision making, or at least they appear to. Police officers are often hesitant, and even fearful to use discretion on the street as they may suffer professionally for that same initiative most agencies claim they are looking for in good officers, doing, good police work. Because conflict, crime and violence as well, as, social issues, i.e. people with mental illness, substance abuse, and interaction with juveniles is turbulent and unpredictable a centralized command structure is ineffective and why a decentralized control structure, which allows police discretion is so important to developing a culture of mutual trust which leads to individual autonomy and team initiative.

Mission Command is the name the military as termed this type of decentralized command structure which is more than a method of control; it is a cultural philosophy that demands the highest in professionalism. Mission Command culture is superior on the street in crisis, keeping the peace, crime fighting and approaching quality of life problems because it pushes decision making down as low as possible on to the developed mind of the professional police officer, who after strenuous selection and education knows best what is needed to accomplish a given mission.  Despite the advent of information technology, the well-developed professional continues to have the clearest view of what is going on at the point of the problem, and the mission command culture enables their ability to act faster and more decisive for them and their organization to outperform their changing operating environment.   In policing this type of autonomy is needed if we wish for officers to channel their experience with discretion on the street.

In his book Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command in the U.S., British, and Israeli Armies, Ethan Shamir describes Mission Command:

“Mission command was presented as an organizational solution aimed at minimizing the effects of friction and facilitating the pursuance of organizational objectives. It denotes decentralization and delegation of decision-making authority, allowing lower-level commanders to make quick independent decisions. In order to avoid the subsequent loss of organizational alignment toward an overall objective, mission command relies on adherence to higher command guidelines—the concept of intent. However, decentralization requires subordinate empowerment and ability. Subordinates must be equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills in order to make correct judgment calls; superiors must communicate their intent in the simplest and clearest manner.

 These conditions require a specific organizational culture wherein commanders and subordinates accept and share the risk of failure and where commanders feel able to grant their subordinates freedom to carry out missions independently.

Furthermore, when people are treated as professionals, everyone regardless of their rank or position buys into and takes ownership of the culture.  It is superior because after strenuous accession and development courses, it depends on the binding glue in all situations, trust.  The culture under mission command uses technology to enhance an already developed mind in complex problem solving.

“The literature demonstrates that in order to adopt successful practices, the adopting organization must undergo certain changes. Cultural change is neither quick nor a linear process; it is largely dependent on the example set by and the decisions made by its leaders.” ~Ethan Shamir

On the other hand, a mission command culture does not mean a free for all, or as I often hear referred to it as a allowing your subordinates to go and do as they please.  This mindset too often occurs and is an attitude that is rooted in fear by those who fail to study in detail that what is involved with mission command, which is, high levels of self-discipline and professionalism. It does not give subordinates a free ticket to do as they please once the leader says “get it done!” It is a professional understanding of what the leader wants, mission and intent.  In return, leadership is frank about the ability of each officer and when they do so, can accordingly assign the proper mission or task for the officer(s) to successfully carry out the mission and intent without telling them how to do it.

The most common element in this type of culture, the mission command culture is trust. More accurately stated it is mutual trust, respect between leaders and police officers. This also means there are a clear understanding and acceptance of responsibility and acceptance of risk. A far cry from the current top down risk adverse, centralized cultures policing is currently made up of, despite the 40 years of talking about decentralizing control. Mission Command denotes trust. To build trust within our communities we must give our trust internally to our police officers and at the same time our police officers must trust their leaders if they are to use their wisdom, experience, sound judgement and professionalism while solving complex problems in their communities.

Most police organizations have settled for mere adequacy when it comes to how we lead and police, we can and must do better!

Stay Oriented!

Fred