Paul Cappitelli
Author: Paul Cappitelli

This article, originally published 03/05/2015, has been updated with current information.

Field training officers often tell new recruits, “I’m going to teach you all of the things you need to know that they did not teach you in the police academy.”

Hopefully this well-intended FTO will provide accurate and ethical wisdom – the type of on-the job-training that will truly benefit the eager trainee. Eventually, the new recruit will become a seasoned officer and will perhaps pass on similar wisdom to a new trainee.

But what about the transition from line-level officer to supervisory and leadership positions? Who provides wisdom to the newly promoted supervisor, middle manager, or police executive? Often, the transition is “trial by error” or “baptism by fire” by individuals who have the confidence to adapt, adjust and overcome the hurdles they encounter – even those created by their own lack of experience or the absence of adequate guidance. Confidence is a good trait when properly managed, but can be detrimental when overconfidence leads to error.

Nothing magical happens in the ascension to higher rank – great leaders take the time to understand the role and responsibility of higher rank, and do not leave anything to chance. Failing to develop one’s self for leadership is a recipe for struggle. Here are four keys to remember when transitioning into a leadership role:

1. Ethics

Perhaps the biggest error a leader could make is engaging in unethical practices.

“Do as I say, not as I do” is never a viable approach. A leader must model high ethical standards if they expect everyone else to be ethical. The ethical challenges police leaders face are often obscure and subtle. Circumventing a budgeting process, placing a friend or relative in a favorable position for a competitive bid, or using departmental resources for personal use are examples of improper and unethical conduct.

Remember the adage, “Do the right thing whether or not anyone is watching.”

2. Politics

An effective police leader understands the relationship between politics and the law enforcement mission. The community’s support of the police and the allocation of resources are directly tied to the political process. Make it a point to know the elected officials locally, regionally and statewide. There is no course in the basic police academy that truly prepares you for navigating through the political waters. It is not advisable to wade into these waters without guidance and mentoring.

Consider joining a professional networking association or service club that provides opportunities to coexist with politicians. To this end, be careful what you say in conversations with politicians. Remember that politicians are always seeking information to help them in their role as elected officials. They are likely to hang on to every word that you say and later repeat it whether it is potentially embarrassing or not. Similar to taking to a reporter, there is no such thing as “off the record.”

3. Impartiality

Remaining impartial and not allowing personal bias to influence decisions is a critical skill for police leaders. It is especially critical when making decisions that involve people you were previously working alongside in the organization prior to moving into the leadership role. This is even more challenging when your former partners are being evaluated for special assignments or promotions. Being cognizant of this issue is the first step toward managing bias.

4. Understanding

In the perfect world, everyone is in agreement and consensus is easily attained. In reality, people will differ in various situations and work hard to support their position in a group setting. If it is not possible to agree with somebody else’s point of view, the next best option is to seek understanding. Human nature is such that everybody wants to feel that their way is the correct way.

Soliciting input and feedback goes a long way toward developing a strong leadership team. Mutual respect is the cornerstone of developing influence in a leadership role. Careers are made and broken in a group setting. Remember that you cannot listen very well when you’re talking. Choose your battles wisely and know that not every hill is worth dying on.


Ascending into a leadership role can be both rewarding and frustrating. Following the examples of good mentors and role models will help to successfully manage the transition. Don’t be reticent about seeking counsel and advice from those who are more experienced. Remember that the boss is not expected to have all the answers, so don’t try to put the engine together without guidance.

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