Understanding the Dark Side of Leadership: Remedying the 7 Errors of Leadership Behaviors in Policing


 Part I

Luck is always the last refuge of laziness and incompetence” ~ James Cash Penney

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

When one thinks of leadership, a host of positive traits rush to the forefront of thought such as inspirational, integrity, motivational, honest, influential, passionate, and creative – just to name a few. Unfortunately, there is the other side of the leadership coin: the dark behaviors that fester in the leadership world. Examples of destructive leadership behaviors are countless throughout history, professions, and organizations (Normore & Brooks, 2016).  Worst, and all too often are the organizations that accept such behavior, which limits the overall productivity and goodwill any organization can or will accomplish.  This is especially evident in government where organizations have produced a great deal of bureaucracy to the point where simple tasks require significant time and effort (Peter, 1972). If we, as followers and leaders, are committed to weeding out the destructive behaviors that impact opportunities to be the best organizations for the public good, we must first recognize the very behaviors that stand in our way. More importantly, we must stand ready to do something about those behaviors.

Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman has identified seven types of bad leaders. Kellerman asserts by ignoring bad and destructive leadership, people undermine good and effective leadership (Johnson, 2012). With this in mind, this article is part one of a seven-part series, illuminating the seven errors of leadership behaviors and how they apply to policing.  We will explore the seven types, identify and briefly describe each.  We will attempt to promote the best in leadership for police organizations and hopefully eradicate some poor leadership qualities along the way.

The Dark Side of Leadership Issue 1 – Incompetence

Professor Kellerman has identified incompetent leaders as the first of the seven types of bad leaders (Johnson, 2012).  It is important to understand that a leader might not have all of the answers for any organization, or any given moment in time. However, due to competence she must be able to appropriate and rally resources, exercise intelligence, be rational and enthusiasm to get any job done. Incompetent leaders on the other hand are those who lack motivation and the imagination to effect action while typically lacking the right emotional, academic, and job know-how to make effective decisions (Johnson, 2012). 

Incompetent leaders hurt police organizations. These leaders are readily seen by line-level as leaders who over-delegate and rely on subordinates to get their own work done. This leaves subordinates asking themselves tough questions about the organization particularly concerning how such people land leadership roles. Incompetent leaders affect police organizations in a myriad of ways:

  1. They have a hard time making quick field decisions and cannot function in stressful environments, thereby making ineffective incident commanders and leaders in operational environments.
  2. They rarely create followership within the organization thus limiting organizational energy and alignment.
  3. Worst yet, they have a tendency to over-delegate to hard workers, ultimately leading to burnout while taking the brunt of credit for the good work that happens under their watch.

Another organizational hurdle incompetent leaders deal to police organizations is the overall leadership messaging (knowingly or unknowingly) it sends to aspiring leaders: job performance and mastery are not important to advance. This, in of itself, is detrimental to organizational performance, leaving many officers wondering if they have to even work hard in order to advance.

Seeing incompetence in action

An example of an incompetent leader in action is the manager who is requested by the organization to carry out a role, who in turn finds ways to lay under the radar, such as signing up for an excessive amount of career development opportunities, or takes other types of absences at poor times – all in the hopes of limiting their exposure to challenging issues; while concurrently taking on significant work in front of executives, then delegating to people within their command. This delegation burns out and stresses those in assignments under the incompetent leader.  When confronted with issues about particular events, the incompetent leader has someone else to point at; as well as the opportunity to be included in the praise when things go well. The people who get left with the additional load of work rarely criticize the incompetent leader for fear of being labeled a malcontent or because of who the incompetent leader is aligned with.

Incompetent leaders often have special or personal relationships with higher executives which also complicates several leadership mobilizers within a police department – especially when presented with opportunities to promote.  If the higher-ups do not condemn poor behavior and accept it, the ripple effect is costly. Our front-line people begin do not care about performance, leading to less and less of our organizational priorities and missions being carried out. At the end of the day, the public is the one constituent that pays the biggest price as a lot of service is dismissed.

Illuminating light on the darkness of incompetence

There are many ways in which incompetence can be overcome.  The authors have identified four options for police organizations to limit incompetence:

  1. Give knowledge, skills, and abilities a higher degree of importance in the promotional process. Most police promotional exams for executive management have a high degree of subjectivity.  While subjectivity can be used for good intentions, if it bears the highest degree of weight in a promotional process, connected people prosper and performance is left behind.  There are two important parts of organizational performance for leadership: the output of leader’s initiatives and the input leaders make in contributing to the smooth internal functioning of the organization (Peter, 1972).
  2. Use the 360-degree evaluation as a regular part of workplace feedback. While some police organizations are utilizing the 360-degree tool, it is how it’s used that really matters.  We have seen it be used as a tool in the promotional process which we would argue is too late.  By adopting a routine use of the 360-degree tool, agencies put certain behaviors on notice and give the employee ample time to made positive adjustments.  Another option of this tool is the use of it in conversations between association/union and executive conversations about the performance of aligning line-level with management.
  3. Develop organizational education domains for leadership. When police organizations make development an on-going part of the leadership process, it builds a department into a learning organization where everyone feels the need to continuously enhance their learning for the overall growth of the organization. Organizational learning happens when departments actively mentor people, allow people to try new things, and exchange information (Bowman & Deal 2015).
  4. Finally, when confronting the reality that an organization has an incompetent leader, the first step is to get those people help.Incompetence is not something an organization should overlook and is a serious matter.  These types of leaders impede performance and energy, and public safety needs all the help it can muster in making communities safe and vibrant. Additionally, leadership has the responsibility to be good stewards to all of our employees – good or bad; in getting them the help they need to succeed.


Ellis and Normore (2015) argued that sometimes in policing, like other disciplines, groups are regaled 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 require the knowledge and skills-set of both.

Without arming leaders and followers with information and having the ability to take action against the negative perils of poor workplace behaviors, police organizations will be left with suboptimal performance where there’s a strong likelihood of an erosion of enthusiasm, performance, and public trust. The entire organization feels the effects of the incompetent leader. Executives who chose to dismiss the realities of how the organization is affected by the incompetent leader will never allow their organization to muster it full strength. Executives owe it to their people to help those who don’t function well within their roles and provide additional opportunities to develop those who are failing their own; or allow them to see the way they impact the organization. If not the dealings of the incompetent will weigh heavily on those we depend on the most.


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Ellis, G., & Normore, A.H. (2015).  Performance management strategies for effective leadership in law enforcement: An accountability process. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Retrieved from, http://leb.fbi.gov/2015/february/performance-management-strategies-for-effective-leadership-an-accountability-process

Bolman,. L., & Deal. T. (2015). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership 5th Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass,

Johnson, C. (2012). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: Casting light or shadow.  4thEdition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Normore, A.H., & Brooks, J. S. (2016). The dark side of leadership: Identifying and overcoming unethical practice in organizations. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

Peter, L. (1972). The Peter prescription: How to be creative, confident, & competent.  New York, NY: William Morrow & Company.

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