A Self-Assessment for Law Enforcement Leadership Improvement: The 6 Traits of a Successful Police Leader


A Self-Assessment for Law Enforcement Leadership Improvement:  The 6 Traits of a Successful Police Leaderwith Dr. Anthony H. Normore

There has been much said and written about what constitutes a successful leader. From arguing about leaders being born or developed to defining differing leadership styles based on personality inventories the opinions are vast and the leadership development industry is robust.

For purposes of this article, we collaborated by utilizing our leadership experiences and observations in ‘the quest for leadership’ to identify the key traits that will benefit anyone seeking to improve their leadership capacity. More specifically, the basis of this work stems from the leadership traits that were identified by over 500 executives from the police, federal civil service, and military over a six-year period during executive development programs at the Canadian Police College where Dr. Ellis was the lead facilitator and developer.

The methodology consisted of a working definition of leadership being suggested to, and agreed upon, by the group that defined leadership as being, ‘the ability to influence others towards an objective’. A nominal group technique was then used to have the participants identify the 12 most important leadership traits they valued. Subsequently, participants ranked the top six leadership traits in order of importance.

Once the six traits were agreed on by title and definition each participant was asked to do a private self-assessment on how she/he ranked out of 10 points on each of the characteristics. They were then challenged to develop their leadership skills by focusing on each trait and especially in the weaker areas. A key take-home challenge was to have their workplace peers, spouses, and confidants repeat this evaluation process in order to compare their self-assessment and provide a basis for leadership trait development.

The six key traits identified in rank order included caring, competence, credibility, communication, courage and collaboration. Though the participants might have initially used other words and phrases, the authors have taken the liberty to simplify them in to the 6’c’s of leadership. For example the participants might have identified, “knows their stuff,” as a trait and this has been simplified to the word “competence”.

The participants almost unanimously agreed that a leader missing any of these traits would most certainly fail. Furthermore, they frequently suggested that there was a sequential and/or circular flow to the individual traits. We will briefly expound our analysis since traits themselves by title, and without contextual meaning offer minimal significant evidence of success.


The primary starting point for developing leadership traits is that the leader has to care, and influence the followers to care (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). This trait extends to caring about followers (i.e., influenced) and championing them in their own activities for growth and development. A key trait identified repetitively focused on leaders’ self-aggrandizement where leaders use their followers to make themselves look good and get ahead resulting in lack of care for the needs of the followers.

If a leader has the focus on championing themselves then we argue that this is a self-help program and not genuine leadership. The other aspect of caring was that the leader needs to care and champion the compelling cause of the team towards excellence.


Participants regaled the groups with stories of ‘bosses’ who were promoted to a positional leadership role and did not understand or know the job. They were promoted because they were good ‘guys’, knew somebody and belonged to the same club, were superstar investigators but did not understand the administrative job that they were promoted into, or because they lacked the first characteristic of caring. Essentially, they just did not keep up. With the leadership movement there is a danger of developing charismatic well-spoken leaders who have never managed.

A leader needs to be able to manage well and that means that they need to understand the business that they are in and be a resource to the followers. It is equally important that leaders are aware of the subtle differences between “leadership” and “management” but they also require the knowledge and skills-sets of both. We contend that leadership is the ability to influence, empower, and promote effectiveness, whereas management is more aligned with efficiency (e.g., see Murray, 2014).


There was widespread agreement amongst the participants that if a leader cared and was competent that leader is seen to have credibility. Effective leaders need to be truthful, provide honest feedback, admit mistakes, take ownership and responsibility, be consistent, fair and just in following the rules. They also must be a problem solver, have the ability to mediate conflict, value cultural diversity and honor its integrity, and have influence with their boss and the constituency they serve.

Other credibility characteristics’ include being patient, even tempered, trustworthy, discrete, and firm but fair with wrongdoers. Related to credibility is compassion. Credible leaders and take care of their people while at the same time recognizing the importance of protecting the integrity and reputation of the organization.


It is suggested that if a leader cares, is competent, and has credibility then people will value what they have to say. The ability to communicate effectively is an important trait to leverage all of the other traits and yet, indicators from the participants who completed the leadership self-assessment clearly highlighted this trait as the one that they felt that they needed to improve the most.

The ability to think and communicate strategically to lead through complex projects and effectively communicate plans, successes, and challenges to influence those who had authority over the organization were seen as key. Discussions around leaders not being able to get budgets through to fund initiatives or to affect policy change approval, demonstrated leadership weakness. Our assertion then is ‘If a leader is leading and no one is following, then the leader is only taking a walk.’


When law enforcement leaders care, are considered competent, have developed credibility, and have learned to communicate effectively then they can, with confidence, be morally courageous. They use courage to do the right thing, to speak truth to power, to give honest feedback, to ask for honest feedback, to uphold democracy and justice, to apologize, to say we can do better, to change the status quo and to challenge mediocrity.

Of all the leadership traits moral courage is the one that involves the greatest risk (See Zoller, Normore, & Harrison, 2013) and as agreed by the participants – if a leader has developed the other traits to a high level the risk is lessened.


If all five of the previous traits are developed and recognized at a high level it follows that the leader and his/her sphere of influence will be considered a worthy partner to collaborate with. In our society very few institutions can thrive without the cooperation and collaboration of others.

Organizations, agencies, community groups and individuals all look to partner with others following ‘the exchange perspective’ to find others that can help them fulfill their roles. The network of collaboration a leader has is also a marker of his/her influence that goes to the heart of the definition of leadership.

Final Thoughts

Based on our experiences and observations coupled with a research base and survey findings, we recommend the following for all those who aspire and/or are currently in a law enforcement leadership role, to reflect on what it means to be an effective leader. Do you want to be a more effective leader? Take the time to assess your own leadership based on these 6 traits and ask yourself where you need to improve. You might also take the courage to ask peers, subordinates, and your boss to rate you as well. When you reflect on your results you will have a starting point to focus on the traits that will make you a better police leader with the ability to influence others.

Always remember, becoming a better leader starts with you but at the end of the day it is really about others; influencing them to be better and to achieve the goal. Our research shows us that the key traits to being a better leader are about caring, building competence, strengthening credibility, communicating effectively, having the confidence to exhibit courage and being able to collaborate with others to achieve your compelling cause.

Gary Ellis, Ph.D is the Head of Department of Justice Studies at the University of Guelph Humber. He holds a doctorate (PhD) in Leadership from the University of Toronto. His research interests focus on public sector leadership, governance, and policing. Prior to entering the education field Dr. Ellis spent over 30 years in policing with the Toronto Police Service retiring at an executive level. He is a former graduate of the FBI National Academy program and a former Fellow of the FBI National Academy Leadership Development Unit.

Anthony H. Normore (Tony), Ph.D is the Head of Department of Special Needs Services and Professor of Leadership at California State University Dominguez Hills.  With 30+ years in education roles, his research focuses on leadership development in the context of ethics and social justice. He is editor of several published books, peer-reviewed articles, and book chapters. Dr. Normore has facilitated “Values-Based Leadership” and “Principles of Curriculum” learning to numerous inmates at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Currently, he plays a pivotal role in the design and delivery for “Credible Leadership” Police Officer training course with Los Angeles Police Department. Some of his work appears in Police Chief (IACP), and Law Enforcement Today.

To learn more:

Kouzes, J.M., & Posner, B.Z. (2012). The leadership challenge: How to make

extraordinary things happen in organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Murray, A. (2014). What is the difference between management and leadership.

Retrieved from, http://guides.wsj.com/management/developing-a-leadership-style/what-is-the-difference-between-management-and-leadership/

Zoller, K., Normore, A.H., & Harrison, E. (2013).  Leadership thinking: A discipline of

the mind for the effective  law enforcement supervisor. Journal of Authentic Leadership in Education, 2(4), 1-10. Available [Online]: http://csle.nipissingu.ca/JALE/Vol2No4FINAL2.pdf

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