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Legacy of Leadership Part 3: Formal Leadership


Criminal Justice

Thank you for returning to our Legacy of Leadership – Developing your leadership environment in the law enforcement series. We have taken you through our first two articles about the Beginning, the Informal Leader, and now we will be moving you into the Formal Leadership discussion. Although the individual terms Informal and Formal may sound similar when talking about leadership, the responsibilities have a new meaning when the first two letters are removed. These responsibilities bring about unique challenges and significant professional rewards in a person’s career.

Every organization has leadership stages where a person is expected to lead based on their position. The sergeant title for many law enforcement agencies moves you into a formal leadership situation. Other agencies might include lieutenant, coordinator, specialist, or another specific title in your particular department recognized as the first stage of traditional supervisory leadership (you would know these specific titles in your organization better than we).

You willfully agree to “lead by the title when entering the formal leadership stage.” There is no way around this concept and no turning back unless you want to turn down the promotion. But also, the title does not magically give you leadership skills (we can already see the argument coming). Jeremy and I understand there might be exceptions to this statement, but generally, promotion to this level says, “you have been bestowed a leadership title; here are the keys, go forth and do great things because everyone is watching and counting on you.” You need to understand this fact; your team is counting on you, and you are required to act. Sitting back with eyes closed, headphones on, playing your favorite tunes from Journey, ignoring your responsibilities is ripe for disaster. You are in for a rude awakening if you are not ready to jump in with both feet and empower others, be a servant leader and build trust around you in every aspect of the job. The magical fairy dust you sprinkled on your partners during your informal leadership days might buy you some time as you move into the formal stage, but as you may have heard before, “the honeymoon could quickly come to an end.”

Formal leadership takes energy! Constant and consistent supervision is not easy, but it can be gratifying. Helping others grow, do their job well, and have successes is monumental. Often, we get questioned by those officers looking for promotion and ask us about the job or what to expect. We tell them nine times out of ten that they need the energy to do the job. It seems like a straightforward statement anybody could utilize, but it involves many facets. Working with humans daily, mentoring, striving for goals, holding people accountable, praising, being compassionate, etc., is all on top of your job as a law enforcement officer – it all takes energy! Reflect on the point you can and must bring to your area; do you need to shift gears, are you holding the status quo, or do you need to make adjustments – only you can answer this?

For me (Jeremy), the amount of energy needed in formal leadership was truly realized the first weekend I was placed in an “on-call” status. Even though my 10-hour shift had ended for the day, an employee I supervised was involved in a challenging situation while investigating a fatal traffic crash. Rather than heading home, I responded to the area, met with the employee, and worked through the incident together at the scene. This could have been handled over the phone or through email exchanges. Still, the point of just showing up can have a lasting impact when it comes to developing your reputation within the ranks as a formal leader and was definitely worth the cost of getting home 4 hours later. There are other aspects to consider when reflecting on the energy and output needed in these positions – do you arrive at events earlier than others and leave later than most? Are you indeed present and engaged when having conversations with those you supervise? Ultimately, these seemingly small aspects can be draining, but they are undoubtedly important.

As for me (Jason), one of the most significant areas of energy in the job comes from caring for your people. The job would be easier if you didn’t genuinely care for the people you currently work with or even in the past. Try hard to think of your people when they are not at work, homesick, out of work from an injury, a death in the family, or home with their new baby. I recall not too long ago calling a member of the agency (who I did not directly work with anymore) who was on extended leave due to an injury to see how he was doing. He was shocked. I said I was the first person to call him since he had been out of work (three weeks so far), and he was grateful for the call. I was calling because I cared; even though I couldn’t “fix” his injury, the call was enough. Track what is going on with your employees (I use the task feature in Outlook) and follow up with authenticity and genuine concern; it is critical to do so.

In many cases, a person does not have the ability or power to pick the group of individuals they are assigned to lead after promotion in law enforcement. Therefore, the time and energy required in formal leadership can dramatically increase if those individuals do not share the same values or the agency’s overall vision. How have you prepared to overcome this significant challenge when dealing with personnel? In the same respect, we have also realized the importance of taking advantage of a wide variety of professional experiences as we progress through our careers, knowing that these skills will assist with transitioning into a formal leadership role. How have you gained knowledge on sound tactics and timely decision-making, administrative duties, public speaking, and other ‘not so glamorous’ (but essential) aspects of formal leadership?

While it is inevitable that challenges will be faced with any role when leading others, there are also some very significant rewarding experiences as well – none more than being a small part of the success of others. You should be proud of your achievement when the transition is successfully made to a formal supervisory position. This is not an easy step to take in a career – it is supposed to be hard because not everyone has the ability, desire, or energy to do it. After the celebration ends, it is essential to shift focus and emphasize mentoring others, holding them accountable, and developing confidence in your employees with the ultimate goal of one day having them take your job (someday)– that is what positive influence and legacy are all about! We don’t believe this is an immediate notation of a new formal leader, but it should be on the top of your mind once you get your feet wet and when your “true north” is understood.

At its core, this starts with knowing your people. What are their professional strengths and weaknesses? Are they employees with ‘high growth’ or ‘low growth’ needs (International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2016)? Are you continually putting them in positions to be successful while allowing them to challenge themselves and even make mistakes? Rebalanced Thinking Rebalanced Living talks about the value of mistakes and how they are part of the learning process, and we cannot grow if we don’t take chances and make mistakes. “If we want whomever, we are “managing” to perform at their highest levels. We need to assure that they are never afraid of making mistakes” (Bernabel et al., 2017). As a formal leader in this line of work, you should not take chances to get your people injured, but you should take risks to grow and help others develop. These might be in listening, training techniques, motivational tools, or communication (the list goes on…). It is okay to step outside the preverbal law enforcement box and try something new; you and your agency might be better for it. If someone asked you to name a single negative trait of a poor leader, I would imagine many would say ‘micromanagement’ or something similar to that term. Now, think of those formal leaders you hold in high regard. Did they allow mistakes and growth to occur in your development? If the answer is yes, they are practicing the opposite of micromanagement.

Sure, mistakes will be made, and good formal leaders will learn from them. On the other hand, it is always important to mitigate the frequency and duration of mistakes by placing significant value on meticulous planning and preparation that includes contingencies for alternative solutions. This means being consistently prepared for situations, but at the same time, being flexible with options with the ultimate goal of having a positive outcome. Once the case has concluded, balance is again needed when analyzing or debriefing the event. Yes, trial and error is a good learning tool when overcoming these issues as you move forward, but so is not dwelling on those missteps. Rather than living on the matter or becoming absorbed with self-analysis of a single event, shifting to forward-thinking and developing better ideas is a healthier direction to take and is needed within your formal leadership role.

When formal leaders make individual mistakes or errors in judgments, they must willingly and genuinely take ownership of the outcome. Most would agree with this essential practice because it is crucial to put forth the notion that you are not perfect; mistakes happen to everyone and can relate to your personnel. What may escape some thought is if the negative outcome is the result of the efforts of an entire team, the formal leader still has the duty and obligation (in most cases) to take public responsibility for it. In simpler terms familiar to law enforcement, an excellent formal leader does not throw anyone ‘under the bus’ when having to answer for the shortcomings of themself or their team. When this concept is put into action, in the end, it certainly does not mean it is all taken only on the formal leader’s shoulders. Instead, this is when the work begins with the team to make it better in the future.

When successful outcomes are achieved, the formal leader understands the importance of recognizing others or the team – not themselves. Maxwell (2011) puts this into a category called Reward for Results. He explains that this recognition must be done privately and publicly to promote organizational vision and positive behavior in other personnel under your charge. Ultimately, when taking the step to formal leadership, most forms of individual recognition should be set aside for the betterment of others.

Recognizing others, learning from mistakes, detailed planning, forward-thinking, and using your time and energy to improve organizational vision are all standards of the outstanding formal leader. When talking about these concepts, most would agree on their fundamental intrinsic values for the overall success of the individual and the team. Buy-in is not tricky when promoting these actions listed in the first sentence. Still, it gets tricky when formal leaders have the duty and obligation of holding others accountable for their actions. It may not seem like much, but it takes courage to have these difficult conversations or enforce formal disciplinary action.

This means being an attentive formal leader to recognize changes in behaviors and actions within your team members. When you know your people (how many times have we said that) and observe unhealthy activity patterns, do you take a proactive approach? Once again, this takes energy. Reaching out to this person to have an informal conversation about your observations and genuinely expressing concern can do wonders. It can also prevent a tragedy or large-scale adverse events from occurring. Don’t ignore any “gray rhinos” (Wucker, 2016), those employees or situations who are obvious dangers (personally or organizationally), yet we miss them. Meaningful and honest conversations about what to do and how to approach the employee or situation will be time well spent and can potentially avert disaster.

Like many things in formal leadership, consistent hard work upfront can prevent future incidents that can be detrimental to yourself, the employee you supervise, and the entire agency. When you do have to go down this path of formal accountability in others, it is essential to remember the negative actions you are addressing in others are contradictory to the mission of the organization, not a personal attack on you or your leadership.

Up to this point in this installment of our four-part series, the focus has rightly been on the success of others when placed in a formal leadership role. Buth, this title also comes with personal responsibility; most importantly, the obligation of intimate knowledge, constant learning, and taking on growth opportunities. At the very least, this means completing required training sessions with your team to keep updated and in tune with the information they are exposed to. In other words, know their work, their needs, and how they are being taught in these areas.

In our experience, when in formal leadership positions, a transition sometimes occurs where you may have increased administrative tasks and do not have to emphasize field operations in your role. When a large-scale training session in your law enforcement agency focuses on-field operations, do you skip it because it does not apply to you anymore and you ‘do not have time, or do you take the opportunity to train with your personnel? Jason and I believe the positive impacts of training with your people have far-reaching consequences beyond the tactics practiced and learned in the session. Once again, energy comes to the forefront – make the time – it will be worth it!

Taking this personal responsibility of learning a bit further means attending leadership courses even though you have taken a version of them in the past. It means emphasizing acquiring a private library and reading books that can create new ideas. It means attending professional conferences and knowing the importance of networking with your peers in leadership. It may even mean returning to collegiate education and gaining additional degrees. Individual ego and pride have no place in formal leadership, and when you are open to the fact that you do not know everything and others have a lot to offer, growth takes place. This personal growth is then reflective in your team as you unselfishly pass the knowledge onto them. As Margaret Fuller said, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”

During my leadership self-analysis, I (Jeremy) had to be honest with my literary prowess and admit that I did not read for enjoyment in the past. While growing up, I took every opportunity not to read when books were assigned in high school and early in my secondary education. With that realization (and probably maturity), I started my journey of becoming a bookworm by going back and reading all of the classics I had never read, even when I was assigned them. John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemmingway, and Mark Twain consumed my time for years before I moved into novels and historical non-fiction. Over time, this morphed into leadership and self-development books. Now, it is rare that I am not actively reading some text on any number of wide-ranging subjects.

More than any other stage, formal leadership is where legacies are built (some good and some not so good) – what direction do you want to take your unforeseen legacy? Building an estate doesn’t require constant thought or intention; a strong focus on bettering your environment will create a meaningful legacy. All too often, those formal leaders who are self-serving or are trying too hard to impress can be the ones who fail to see the big picture of leadership. “Tend to the people, and they will tend to the business” (Maxwell, 2011).

Looking at the stages of leadership in this series, some may think achieving a formal leadership position would be the end and ultimate goal of working through the ranks of law enforcement. In our next (and final) article, we will take it one more step and possibly disprove this notion by bringing forth the lessons learned, and challenges faced within Administrative Leadership. You have come this far – please continue with us on this journey of reflective leadership.


Bernabeu, P; Brennan, K; Cody, T; Cole, M; Sweeney, W (2017). Rebalanced Thinking Rebalanced
Living. St. Paul, Minnesota. Top 20 Training.

International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP – 2016). Leadership in Police Organizations (LPO). Alexandria, VA. IACP.

Maxwell, J. (2011). The 360° leader: developing your influence from anywhere in
the organization. Tennessee. Thomas Nelson.

Wucker, M (2016). The Gray Rhino. New York, NY. St. Martin’s Press.

About the Authors:
Jason Bartell and Jeremy Geiger are both BA and MA graduates of Concordia University, St. Paul. In addition to their 25 and 21 years (respectively) of law enforcement experience in areas such as Field and administrative operations, leadership through collaboration, organizational and strategic planning, training coordination and implementation, and mentoring and team building, they are also criminal justice adjunct professors. Jason enjoys spending free time with his wife and daughter in various activities, including traveling. Jeremy and his wife just became empty nesters, enjoy traveling together, and rediscovering life without kids around the house. Jason and Jeremy also take time for ice fishing on frozen lakes in Minnesota.