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Law enforcement agencies are defined by the quality of their leadership. Leaders play a major role in establishing a vision, setting organizational goals, and motivating officers to reach those objectives. On the other hand, law enforcement leaders who espouse the wrong values or who model inappropriate behaviors can create an atmosphere of apathy; frustration; and, in certain cases, corruption and abuse. To further complicate matters, the problems facing today’s law enforce- ment agencies are complex, often requiring the combined talents and efforts of dedicated people throughout the organization. To be successful, today’s lawenforcement leadersmustbeequipped with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary to build trust, inspire others, cultivate organiza- tional change, lead teams, develop cooperation, and promote ethical behavior.
Law enforcement leaders often accept myth over fact because they do not know how to distinguish them. It is only by recognizing and understanding these myths that leaders can ever reach their full poten- tial, as well as help others develop their leadership potential. This article identifies and debunks 10 popular leadership myths. It also offers sug- gestions for how to best avoid each myth, as well as advice on how to better lead officers in today’s complex and demanding environments. Myth #1: Common Set of Leadership Traits One of the oldest and most popular myths surrounding leader- ship is the belief that all good leaders possess a common set of traits. Popular leaders are often portrayed as charismatic, courageous, and de- cisive. According to leadership scholar and author Gary Yukl, although studies have linked certain behaviors with good leadership, no univer- sal set of traits or behaviors has yet been identified that is effective in every instance. 2 In other words, when it comes to leadership, there is no “one size fits all.” Some situations may demand a leader to be decisive and action-oriented, while others may require patience and collaboration. Rather than focusing on a particular set of traits, it appears to be more beneficial to match a person’s leadership style to the demands of their followers and the constraints of the situation. In other words, placing the right leader in the right position seems to be more important than trying to identify leaders with a particular set of traits who will perform successfully in every case. Myth #2: Leadership Requires Formal Authority The second myth is the idea that leadership requires formal au- thority. In other words, the ability to influence others is restricted to individuals appointed to leadership positions. 3 This view is perhaps best reflected by the statement: “When the department promotes me, I will become a leader.” Despite the continued popularity of this myth, it overlooks the simple fact that true leadership cannot be appointed or assigned; it is not based on title or position. Rather, the measure of leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less. Leadership is the ability to influence, inspire, and motivate others to achieve organiza- tional objectives, regardless of a person’s rank, title, or status. Thus, anyone who is able to inspire others to do more and to become more is a leader. The trust, respect, and credibility that make leadership pos- sible must be earned. Officers will gravitate naturally toward others whom they respect and trust, regardless of the individual’s level of for- mal authority. It is the power granted by others that makes someone a leader, not the amount of formal authority associated with a person’s title or position. Titles are granted, but it is a leader’s character and behavior that earn respect. 4 Myth #3: Leaders Are Born, Not Made The third myth – the belief that leaders are born, not made – is one of the longest standing misconceptions in leadership. 5 The idea that leaders are born with special attributes that make them different from followers can be found as far back as the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Plato maintained that only a select few have the superior wisdom required to lead others, while Aristotle believed that people are marked from birth for subjugation or command. Indeed, noth- ing could be further from the truth. While people may be born with certain predispositions for leadership, most leadership skills can be learned through the right combination of study, practice, and expe- rience. 6 For example, a leader’s abilities to communicate effectively, build trust, and motivate others can all be improved with training,
“Everything rises and falls on leadership”
– John Maxwell
W hile leadership is one of the most important components of any successful law enforcement organization, it is probably the least understood. The image that many officers hold of leadership is often based more on anecdotes, stories, and legends than facts. The heroic vision of leadership featured in the news media and popular press has created a tendency among officers to think about leadership only in the context of authority, titles, and people who are in charge. 1 The idea that leadership requires formal authority is one of several popular myths surrounding the concept and practice of leadership. Many of these myths have persisted for so long that they have assumed an air of legitimacy. However, when stripped of mythology, many officers are surprised to learn that leadership is really about teamwork; empowering others; and prioritizing the goals, development, and successes of others.
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