Remedying the 7 Errors of Leadership Behaviors in Policing

Part VII

 “There are two sides to power, good and evil, the latter of which has a more lasting effect.” ~ Shaun S. Lott


Brian Ellis, Anthony H. Normore, & Mitch Javidi – National Command and Staff College


Assistant Chief Burns has spent his entire career with the organization. Once regaled as a company man who took care of people, over the last few years, people have begun to question his integrity and is allegiance to anyone other than himself. Over the past few years, his faithful followers continue to dwindle; many saying that he’s changed, while a few know the real truth. Assistant Chief Burns rose rather quickly, leaping from lieutenant to assistant chief in just a few years. His promotion was based upon a leadership void and a desire to have someone who was going to exercising more care and concern for the organization. Lately, Chief Burns has been leveraging his coercive power. While available to leaders, those who use coercive power are interested in their own goals and seldom interested in the wants and needs of subordinates (Northouse, 2010).

The love of power is dangerous and as one ascends an organization, the more access to power they will have. Ultimately, people will follow leaders based upon how those wield such power. In the case of Chief Burns, he loves his power to the point that he wants to be the gatekeeper of many duties and decisions outside of the scope of his current role. Unbeknownst to the chief, his assistant chief is burning out and frustrating many under his wing, mostly due to the blind faith the assistant chief has in Burns’ ability to get others to follow him. Subordinates dare to stand up against Chief Burns, as there have been a few people recently who have identified problems with initiatives that originated with Chief Burns and have found themselves transferred out of specialty units and back to patrol. As you begin to look into Chief Burns love of making decisions and the need of being needed by others, if has distorted what his original commitment to the chief of police was – to get people to work hard on the vision the chief sets for the organization. Worse, as of late, Chief Burns has begun to take things more personally, and limiting the opportunities of the organization to truly grow. Chief Burns has an inner-circle that is unquestionably loyal to him, carrying out anything he asks whether it’s good for the organization or not.

A retired executive has a different account of Chief Burns. Under the past leadership, he was denied promotion because of this very behavior and referred to as a sniper – playing one part in open public, and another behind closed doors. According to the retired executive, Chief Burns has always been good at manipulating others, and situations for his benefit. He is known by few as a man who will use pain as an instrument of power and will resort to psychological harm to those who stand in his way. In public, he routinely “fights hard for the line-level” and gets those who have little exposure to him to believe in him for his personal quest of climbing higher and higher. As one manager finally realizes, Chief Burns is a destructive and evil leader. How will the department survive under his tenure?

(US Department of Defense)


Evil leaders are good at covering their true intentions. They are also known in circles as being assassins, double-agents, and snipers; those willing to do the dirty work they see as necessary for their personal advancement. In the seventh installment of dark leadership that impedes the best in leadership, we will examine the toxicity of the evil leader and how they negatively impact police organizations. Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman has identified seven types of bad leaders, and by ignoring bad leadership people undermine good leadership (Johnson, 2012). This article is the last part of a seven-part series, illuminating light on the seven errors of leadership behaviors.  We will explore the seven types, what they are and how they look in practice.  We will attempt to promote the best in leadership for police organizations and hopefully eradicate some poor leadership qualities along the way.

Professor Kellerman has identified evil leaders as the seventh of the seven types of bad leaders (Johnson, 2012).  Evil leaders will corrosively use their power to inflict physical or psychological harm to others (Johnson, 2012). Evil leadership appears in many forms such as destructive and oftentimes charismatic leadership. Derluga (2001) proposed destructive and charismatics share a similar featureas Machiavellians – self-confidence. Machiavellianism is a destructiveleadership approach involving the pursuit of one’s own self-interestsusing manipulation and deceit to get the job done (Christie & Geis,1970).  What it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also thereverse of, what it takes to do the job well. As a result, too many incompetentpeople are promoted to management and leadership jobs and promotedover more competent people. As far back as 1969, the PeterPrinciple (Peter & Hull, 1969) explains that all employees of an organizationwill continue to be promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.At the point of their incompetence, they are no longer promoted.If given enough time and levels of promotion, every position in an organizationwill be occupied by someone who can’t do the job. Based on work by Normore, Brooks and Silva (2016), the organizationalbehavior and management concepts outlined in The PeterPrincipleseem particularly true in most organizations. Thosewho seek promotion for their own personal interest often lack theauthentic leadership skills necessary to effectively manage the responsibilitiesof their positions.In the case of Chief Burns, while he sees his role as necessary for the type of organization he desires and the roles he wishes to have, it’s easy to see that this evil behavior is toxic and destructive for the overall health of the organization. Although he is highly intelligent and has good operational instincts, most of his actions value organizational direction, but also hurt people along the way. This toxic behavior impacts the department in many ways. First, the harm he knowingly does to people within the organization is hard to rebound from. Being treated in evil ways builds resentment and disengagement in those who were treated poorly as well as those who are paying attention or know of the issues at hand. The department ultimately suffers a significant performance blow when people are treated poorly. Second, those who admire or follow Chief Burns will likely mirror such ill behaviors, creating a wave of new toxic leaders and poor behaviors to occur. Finally, unethical behaviors more likely occur in cultures where there is already a disconnect (Stallard, 2007), creating a leadership challenge for the organization.

(Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office)


A way out: 5 principles of ethical leadership

Peter Northouse (2010) identified five principles for sound ethical leadership: respect, service, justice, honesty, and community. We will examine why this is the foundation for good leadership.



Leaders who create environments where people can be themselves and have worth even when they are different, create opportunities for an organization to thrive. Leaders respect others by listening to others no matter rank, by being empathetic and tolerant of other points of view, and most importantly – allow employees to feel competent about their work (Northouse, 2010). In the end, the biggest way a leader can show respect to others is simply to pay attention to people. When leadership fails to listen, it has a devastating ripple effect across the organization.



There should be no refuting that the primary goal of leadership is to ensure we are going somewhere. Attending to the needs of others is the foundation of good moral leadership (Greenleaf, 1977). With this, police leaders need to understand the ramifications of their actions; especially the positive ones. When leadership builds a strong connection to service and show it in their daily work – it builds the sustained energy for great outcomes. Successful leaders balance pride with humility, knowing that they are never too big to do the small things that need to be done (Kerr, 2013). CEO of Korn Ferry, Gary Burnison (2017) noted the difference between being in charge and being a real leader. He coined the term “me-dership,” meaning that there are those people in many professions that want to play a big role for themselves only. In reality, being a leader is really about inspiring others to believe in something significant and helping them make that significance a reality.




For police organizations, being an ethical leader means being just. As a rule, no one should receive special treatment or special considerations because of the detrimental issues it brings to the performance of the group as a whole (Northouse, 2010). Justice in a police organization is when rewards and punishments are fair and not divided out based upon who you know. The more fair a police leader is with the interactions (positive or negative) with subordinates, the more effective they are (Van Knippenberg, De Cremer, & Van Kippenberg, 2006).



The single most admired characteristic of great leadership is honesty (Kouzes & Posner, 2010). Being honest is the ability to tell the truth and live your life through ethical principles. When leaders attempt to misrepresent reality or any other form of dishonesty, it not only creates distrust but makes followers feel that you are unreliable or undependable (Northouse, 2010). Being honest with others also requires a leader to be honest with themself, which requires reflection and sound emotional intelligence. Leadership can at times be placed in challenging situations where full disclosure to employees might not always be available, although it is still essential that they are forthcoming with what they can and can’t talk about; that kind of candidness builds trust.



In police organizations, building a sound leadership plan requires that we understand that our employees are the most significant assets. When police organizations build a sense of community, the constituents of said jurisdiction feel the bounty of good work. Concern for the common good means that leadership cannot impose their will but search for goals that bring as many people into the fold as possible (Northouse, 2010). When police leaders are not stewards of their people, they will never live up to any promise they make to the people of the communities the police serve.




According to Shipman and Mumford (2011) most of the character traits, skills, and values are truly advantageous for effective leadership are predominantly found in those who fail

to impress others about their talent for management. We contend that far too many organizations are led by incompetent personnel who are followed by others because of the common misnomer that the higher the position, the better the person who performs it. Competent and professionally ethical people who rise to the level of leadership candidates often make a very simple decision. Once they get a good look at who is in charge and how they work, truly competent people refuse to sink to the level of the leadership in place. It’s not worth the incremental pay to suffer the assault on one’s character and psychological wellbeing. This leaves an open field for the borderline mediocrities that have had to resort to unscrupulous, ruthless tactics simply to survive up to that point. Those mediocrities without a conscience move right up the ladder and end up in the chair by default …which is fine by them. When used to determine leadership potential it falls short of professional ethics.

The professional ethics approach sees ethical problems as resulting from ethical ignorance, ethical failure, or evil intent (Meyers, 2004). While this approach gets at real and valid concerns, it does not capture the whole story because it does not take into account the underlying professional or institutional culture in which moral decision-making is embedded. Much of ethics, both popular and professional, too often presumes morally bad actions result from three sources: good leaders making mistakes (out of confusion or ignorance), good leaders having weakness of will, or bad leaders choosing to do evil (Meyers, 2004). Many ethical problems do result from error, weakness, and vice. But many also result from an organizational culture that promotes internal or prudential values at the expense of ethical ones. Put differently, the culture values productivity over moral principles.

All police organizations feel the impacts of toxic leadership at times, but it is up to the people of those organizations to do something about it. Whether it is to help those who are toxic unmask themselves knowingly or unknowingly, or to stand up against the ill effects of toxic leadership; the reality is it will never get any better without good values standing tall. The stability of life depends on good character, and that character allows people to be responsible, productive, and endure misfortune (Lickona, 2004). By adhering to ethical leadership, police leaders build a future that all of their employees and the community they serve can embrace. That ethical leadership commences with a commitment to respect, service, justice, honesty, and community. As Edmund Burke once said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”




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