UK: The Frontline Of Leadership: A Policing Perspective

Last Updated: 6 July 2015
Article by Adam King

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

Patterns of crime are changing. Police budgets are under increasing pressure. There's a growing recognition that simply reinforcing what we already know about leadership in policing may not prepare the sector for the challenges which lie ahead.

It's in this context that on June 30 the College of Policing launched its leadership review.

The review is wide-ranging, covering visible signs of traditional leadership such as the rank structure and how people reach senior positions. It also covers everything from the way leadership capabilities are developed within policing, to how we should reward people, focusing on their contribution rather than simply rank or grade.

Fundamentally, this review poses the question of what we mean by "leadership" in a contemporary policing organisation. Through this piece of work, the College has broadened the landscape of how we think about leadership challenges in policing and the possible ways of addressing them.

I've worked with senior police officers and staff for many years and acknowledge that not everyone will agree with the conclusions and recommendations in the report. But, to contribute my thoughts, I offer these two reflections about what it is to demonstrate leadership.

Leadership at all levels

One of the report's most interesting propositions is the need to "separate the role of command from the principle of leadership". In policing, it's fundamental to maintain the integrity and effectiveness of the command structure when dealing with fast moving operations or an emerging crisis. At the same time, to deal with some of modern policing's challenges, leadership needs to be exercised at all levels in the organisation.

Our view, based on much of our work with senior public sector leaders, is to recognise that leadership is often an action, rather than simply something attached to a senior role. In the private sector, for example, the best customer service organisations allow leadership to be exercised at all levels, with junior people making key customer decisions and owning quality of service.

In policing, leadership is often exercised at all levels in operational policing, for instance by the neighbourhood officers who "own" problems on their patch and work with citizens, community groups and other agencies to solve them. In other instances, detectives working on behalf of victims lead cases through the criminal justice system and obtain a fair and just outcome. 

In some organisations, however, this doesn't translate into a typical way of working across the entire force. Recognising leadership as an action, not a position, challenges the hierarchical nature of a typical force. And that needs a culture where officers and staff understand when the hierarchy works in support of their outcomes and where it works against them, and to act accordingly.

Leadership in policing is historically defined by rank – with Tactical, Operational and Strategic Leadership often recognised and defined in doctrine and procedure.  The College of Policing review suggests that future leadership models in policing are more complex than simply rank. Our view is that if understood and implemented effectively across the UK, it will enhance the ability to address the changing reality of policing.

Collaborative leadership

The College's work on demand shows how much of policing activity requires partnerships to tackle the root cause of policing challenges. Solving these kinds of problems requires police officers and staff to work in collaboration with others, influencing and supporting rather than directing to drive change.

The leadership review also identifies a training need for leaders whose role is to manage complex commercial and partnering arrangements within policing. It states: "Leadership development must therefore include business capabilities and include management education and training as part of any new model".

Our experience of working with senior leaders across government is that their ability to develop formal and informal collaborative relationships is becoming more critical to their success. Deloitte's State of the State report in 2015 identified the need to define, develop and lead new delivery arrangements as a key theme for public sector leaders. 

These arrangements need a different set of capabilities from those which are traditionally promoted (in both senses) within many large public sector organisations. For an increasing number of Chief Officers and PCCs, service delivery is through a mix of in-house and externally-sourced services, ranging from catering and transport through the front-line services such as Custody Detention Officers, Public Enquiry Officers or Investigators provided by a third-party partner.

The challenge is to build a coherent and consistent delivery experience for members of the public, victims and partner agencies; all the while maintaining the commercial rigour required, given the Łmulti-million contracts which underpin many of these deals. 

Success will depend on the extent to which police forces understand and build the commercial and inter-personal capabilities required to deliver value from these arrangements.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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