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


Part IV

 “Seek out advice, if your world becomes too insular, it limits your creativity.” ~ Georgina Chapman


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


A number of police organizations, both big and small have dealt with the “good ole boy” system (Lee, 2014).  They are the power in-group where promotability is based upon who you know rather than what you know.  This is evident in circumstances where internal gossip runs rampant and everyone plays by a different set of rules; where peers are unwilling to share information and politics control all decisions, ultimately leading to a lack of internal transparency. Many police organizations have faced this lopsided leadership option (McMillin, 1999).  Most agencies that employ such tactics ultimately end up with a sub-par employee energy level, providing little more to the public they serve than the status quo. Equally frustrating are the other layers of government that do not see the overall impact of the “good ole boy” system.  Worst yet are those organizations that seek improvement in this area and bring in another person to fix, who ultimately repeats the same thing in the attempt of ‘changing the organization.’ In the change process, the new leader creates more of the same, as the only thing that changes are the players, not the game (Katzenbach, Steffen, & Kronley, 2012).  Compounding the frustration is that these small groups of in-players are loyal to each other to the core, even when one of their members is incompetent. The group is given inside information and preferential treatment, ultimately leading to a pyramid scheme of corruption and incompetence. It begs the question of how important relationships are in the advancement of people within an organization, and how do great organizations find the balance of personal relationships?

no one talks


In the fourth installment of dark leadership that impedes the best in leadership, we will examine the failures of the insular 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 part four of a seven-part series, illuminating light on the seven errors of leadership behaviors.  We will explore the seven types, what they are and look like. 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 insular leaders as the fourth of the seven types of bad leaders (Johnson, 2012).  Insular leaders draw a clear boundary between those in the group and those seen as outsiders (Johnson, 2012). When the rules are not universal in a police organization, it becomes very difficult to keep everyone playing by them. Additionally, organizations that have insular leaders also suffer due to a lack of problem solving within the management rank. Those who are not within the “in-group” will sooner or later find themselves burnt out, as issues they raise get discarded. In insular environments, when ambiguous issues arise in meetings, there is a lack of questions that limit learning and understanding. This is primarily due to the lack of trust of the group and the limits those within the group put on their ability to be vulnerable for the sake of understanding.

Unfortunately, not asking clarifying questions is a significant issue facing many police organizations complicating opportunities for the management team to do its best work.  One author has experienced time after time a working climate where people would rather be seen as smart, instead of asking the necessary clarification questions on a myriad of issues. This kind of environment breeds groupthink which brings with it a host of problems including, but not limited to:

  1. Self-censorship: People avoid deviating from the norms of the group and would rather fit in over having a better answer.
  2. Avoidance of critical thinking during planning efforts: People don’t criticize plans that are rolled out by power players, thereby not really putting our best foot forward.

The good ole boy system is a haven for groupthink, as the more group-focused the leadership team becomes, the less people are thinking and/or challenging each other.  Decisions that need to be made get kicked down the road and unpopular people no matter their competence have no voice. This impacts the department in multiple ways such as:

  1. Limits organizational creativity
  2. Better business models become overlooked
  3. Poor decisions are made, costing the organization credibility and destroying public confidence.
  4. Development opportunities go to the in crowd.
  5. Information sharing is chaotic and in-group knows more about organizational agendas than everyone else.
  6. Liability is incurred.


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


To complicate issues even more, when groupthink is rampant, police organizations begin relying on successful implementations from the past that may no longer be relevant or produce the greatest yield for the department; but because it worked before, it stands to reason that it should be an acceptable means for today.  We relate this to the idea of making a “copy of a copy”.  Over time, when you copy an image repeatedly, the pixilation becomes distorted, and over time it’s not a useful ‘quality’ image worth printing. Ideas are not singular and are often a collaborative process of passing through many people coupled with thousands of thoughts and decisions before becoming final (Catmull, 2014). Collaborative environments are incubators for good ideas to occur.  When groupthink is present, big ideas get pushed down, shunned, or worst – never shared with the group in the first place. Insular environments are also the breeding ground of fear-based cultures. In a fear-based culture, people consciously and unconsciously avoid risk and being risk adverse costs the organization limited opportunities for innovation as well as an overall environment where new ideas are rejected (Catmull, 2014).


Organizational expectation is who you know rather than what you do

There is a popular old tale by Hans Christian Andersen (n.d.) of the emperor’s new clothes, where an emperor pays a significant amount of money for some ‘magic clothes’, which can only be seen by those who are wise. In reality, the clothes do not exist, and although swindled, the emperor himself does not admit he cannot see them, because he doesn’t want to be seen as unwise. This tale describes the danger of situations where people are afraid to criticize an initiative because of the people involved, or how popular the idea is, as well as the inability to ask questions because of the fear of feeling inferior. 


4 opportunities to get the organization out of “the club”: Applicability to policing

The authors suggest four opportunities to dig an organization out of an insular environment. First, performance needs to be a centerpiece of promotability factors. When friendships or subjective issues are focal points of promotions it sends an organizational message that the pathway for advancement is not working hard. Instead, it is working for those in power, which crushes ongoing momentum efforts. Police organizations in particular are always on an uphill march and need every person to be on the winning team for the progress that needs to take place. Letting friends or inner-circles have a lack of accountability does not help mobilize the workforce in our heaviest lift yet- sustaining an above-average service during every contact we make. Second, there are few issues within a police organization that should be held close to the chest (i.e.- internal affairs investigations or sensitive investigations). Beyond that, we build the best commitments from people being in the know and empowering them with information to help them do their jobs better. When a small group is privy to what’s really going on, the majority of the organization is in the dark and cannot be expected to have the ability to do its best work. Internal transparency builds trust and more importantly- ownership.  Third, executives should be thinking about strategic succession planning rather than waiting for retirements to occur and making picks in the moment. When there is a more formal approach to succession planning, departments usually build more buy-in and elicit better work outputs from people. Finally, leaders build momentum by connecting with as many people as possible; thus building opportunities for everyone and more importantly – connection.  Understanding the basic needs of people, appreciating the contributions of others, and helping them achieve their potential are building blocks of successful organizations (Stallard, 2007). The Gallup Organization has extensively studied work engagement, with one of the best measures of work engagement being connected to the Gallup Q12 survey, which asks whether people in your organization care for you, develop you, and respect your opinion. Businesses with higher Q12 scores experience higher productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction, and less liability (Buckingham, 2011). Those who are insular limit the abilities of work engagement and limiting an organization’s true potential.



In the words of basketball coaching legend John Wooden, “when everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks.” There are countless leaders in history such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt who used the value of challenging their own modes of thinking; whether through a team who had diverse views, or reaching out to others for advice, or seeing how the value of people who think differently than you builds success. Maintaining a healthy skepticism of your own thoughts and ideas leads to a growth mindset. Relationships matter, but they are not the only things that matter. Insular is a road to not knowing what you should already know, and as a result not allowing your organization to fulfill its highest potential.

Seven-Point Creed
(Courtesy Juan Beltran)




Andersen, H. (n.d.). The emperor’s new clothes.Retrieved from http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheEmperorsNewClothes_e.html

 Buckingham, M. (2011). Standout: The groundbreaking new strengths assessment from the leader of the strengths revolution. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Catmull, E. (2014). Creativity Inc: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. New York, NY: Random House.

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

Katzenbach, J., Steffen, I., & Kronley, C. (2012). Cultural change that sticks.Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/07/cultural-change-that-sticks

Lee, A. (2014). How to break up the old boys’ club in your office. Retrieved from,https://qz.com/196273/how-to-break-up-the-old-boys-club-in-your-office/

McMillin, J. (1999). The assessment center for promotion of police officers: can it be improved? Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/bellis.NTCOFSP/Downloads/0679.pdf

Rand, S. (n.d.). Exploring the nature of the “old boy’s network” in the United States: Using electronic networks of practice to understand gendered issues in HRD

Stallard, M. (2007). Fired up or burned out: How to reignite your team’s passion, creativity, and productivity. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

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