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


 “The essence of statesmanship is not a rigid adherence to the past, but a prudent and probing concern for the future.” ~ Hubert H. Humphrey

What happens in a culture of “no” and more importantly, can we do our best work when we ignore signals for creativity? Equally important, when leaders create an environment of “my way or the highway,” it wreaks havoc on workplace energy, creativity, and performance.  In the second installment of dark leadership series intended to impede the best in organizational performance, we will examine the ills of the rigid 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 second 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 what they look like.  We will attempt to promote the best in leadership for police organizations and hopefully eradicate qualities of poor leadership along the way.

Professor Kellerman has identified rigid leadersas the second of the seven types of bad leaders (Johnson, 2012).  Rigid leaders may be competent, but they are unyielding, unable to accept new ideas, information, or change (Johnson, 2012). The hardest part of working for a rigid leader is the fact they are often arrogant (sometimes unknowingly) and stiffen the intellectual capacity of their teams. This is generally evident in their narrow belief that there is only one way – their way (Gosnell, 2017).  As a result, this hurts their organizations due to missed opportunities for growth and development. Rigid leaders are unwilling, or unable, to see emerging opportunities or pitfalls and are unlikely to pivot in key times for organizational success (Gerdeman, 2016). This becomes problematic because the rigid leader sees the path of success through their own hard work.  Though hard-working, these leaders tend to oftentimes lack perspective of others, especially subordinates. Because rigid leaders have worked hard, they struggle to understand others that are not congruent with their own thinking, and therefore, they show little empathy. Rigidity leads this type of leader to ignore or avoid their subordinate’s needs.

Another key issue with rigid leaders is their view of power. Those who have more power than the rigid leader are given privileges due to the fact they have a higher position, whereas those below do not. When a subordinate thinks different than the rigid leader, he or she is faced with being offensive to the rigid leader, and the conversations rarely pivot to the subordinate’s perspective. This leads to subordinate’s lack of energy and morale and seek ways to operate under the rigid leader’s control.

Rigid leaders are detrimental to the problem-solving environment police organizations so frequently depend on in today’s public safety organization. Police departments yield the best results from responsible efforts of cooperation, creativity, and aligning resources. When problem-solving is compromised, results diminish, pushing the rigid leader to finding opportunities that work- usually from an old idea reincarnated which produced minimum results but did not create any waves with executives.

Pivoting the rigid mindset

Bill Gaul, president of the Destiny Group explains an important lesson from a superior from his military experience that sums up the importance of reducing rigidity:

Most situations demand a leadership style that empowers and motivates. A 1998 article written by U.S. Army Colonel Lloyd Mathews in the Military Reviewreveals that traditional military leadership ideals require that “leaders must always respect the innate human dignity of each subordinate…Leaders must recognize the status of U.S. service members as thinking individuals rather than mindless automatons, giving them opportunity wherever feasible to exercise initiative, shoulder responsibility, and employ their native ingenuity in accomplishing assigned tasks.” (Burkholder, Edwards, & Sartain, p. 241).

One author had a mentor who shared an experience of a plan he handed to his work group and asked for them to implement. Throughout the course of the initiative, he sensed that his team lacked a great deal of energy to complete the plan.  On the next initiative, he decided to give his working group an idea he had, and asked for them to come up with a plan.  He was very pleased with their ideas, and not only did they meet the needs of the plan, they exceeded his expectations.  His takeaway was in order for his team to give their all, they had to import some of themselves in to the overall plan, and in doing so, they had a larger degree of ownership; which elevated energy levels of the group and the plan.  

Based on the aforementioned experience, the authors suggest three opportunities to reduce rigid environments within a police organization:

  1. Identify potential rigid members of the team and provide them opportunities for more group activities. This becomes important because some rigid people have a tendency to resist being rigid and may need someone who they respect to change their outlook on this type of behavior and how it impedes the workplace.
  2. Develop a culture of asking questions. When leaders ask questions of their people, as opposed to the other way around, it creates a constant flow of learning.When people look up for answers, it creates dependency.  Leaders must constantly ask those who work for them for inputs to create the best outputs for operations and plans. A leader is left with a lot more work and less overall brainpower being put forward when everyone looks for answers from above.  When leaders ask the right questions, people are able to see many things for themselves and become better aligned with mission statements and work outputs. 
  3. Embrace flexibility, even in rigid plans. While there are times that need detailed and a level of rigidity, it is important to understand that flexibility is still a useful tool for the overall learning and development of a team / individual. Flexible decision-making builds a host of emotional connections such as trust, loyalty, employee engagement, productivity, and diversity of thought (Howington, 2017).

One final way police leaders can be more flexible in their decision-making is to use the “four rules of improv” as noted from Tina Fey’s book Bossypants(2011) which are:

Rule 1: Say Yes: This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything a subordinate brings to you, but it does mean that you have to have the right mindset to acknowledge what the other person is communicating, so you have the appropriate level of back information to make progress. 

Rule 2: Say Yes, AND: The first rule is about understanding, and by adding “and” to the process allows for a deeper level of understanding which ultimately gets everyone closer to understanding problems, and more importantly coming up with solutions.

Rule 3: Make statements: This rule is to be the kind of leader who is not just pointing out all of the obstacles, but also having the opportunity to make statements that align work to values and objectives. Leaders owe it to their followers to anchor work to the mission at every opportunity possible.

Rule 4: There are no mistakes: This rule is about recognizing the opportunities of learning and developing others; and how some projects are better off with having moments of failure. We operate in a fast-paced world where chaos is around every corner, and some people are so centered on perfection that it paralyzes organizations from taking action. While minimizing errors is important, so is the ability for people to be people; to learn and create; to be empathetic when things didn’t go as expected.

Final takeaways

Rigidity creates environments that stiffen creativity and teamwork. It costs organizations a great deal of productivity. Today’s workplace capitalizes on the intellectual capacities of teams, and without collaborative environments, police leaders, whether intentional or not, set their teams up for failure. On the other side of the spectrum are those teams who are highly creative and adaptable to emerging threats and opportunities.  In these settings, rigidity might be seen in the overall structure of the planning process but is non-existent in the people policies and ideas along the way.  Collaboration is a focal part of a great team, and the first thing discarded in the rigid environment. When collaboration isdeveloped and recognized at a high level it follows that the effective police leader and his/her sphere of influence will be considered a worthy partner to collaborate with. In our society very few institutions can thrive on rigidity or 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 and its associated levels of flexibility. It is hard to overlook the value of flexibility, and police organizations need leaders who ultimately understand the value of flexibility of the decision-making process; and more importantly who employ it on a continuous basis. When we activate the collective intelligence of our groups, we become unstoppable.

Please consider taking this brief survey on Toxicity in the Workplace.

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


Burkholder, N., Edwards, P., & Sartain, L. (2004). On staffing: Advice and perspectives from HR leaders. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Retrieved from, https://epdf.tips/on-staffing-advice-and-perspectives-from-hr-leaders.html

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

Fey, T. (2011). Bossypants. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Company.

Gosnell, K. (2017). The rigid leader – How rigidity sabotages organizations. Retrieved from, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-leadership-sabotage-organization-sign-rigidity-ken-gosnell/

Gerdeman, D. (2016). How rigid leaders kill their companies.  Retrieved from, https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2016/09/26/how-rigid-leaders-kill-their-companies/#6c611840f72f

Howington, J. (2017). Why flexibility is important for a successful company culture. Retrieved from https://www.flexjobs.com/employer-blog/flexibility-important-successful-company-culture/

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

Related Posts