The myth of "Command and Control" Leadership

The supervisory environment in law enforcement agencies has long been dominated by what is commonly known as the “command and control” culture. While the evolution and development of this type of supervisory culture could be endlessly debated, its origination is no doubt rooted in the semi-militaristic structure of police agencies and the necessity of supervising police officers that, in the first decades of American policing, were often poorly qualified and critically under-trained. In its most simplistic form, “command and control” is an authoritarian style of supervision that survives almost exclusively through the practice of positional and coercive power. Decisional authority rests almost entirely with a few at the apex of the organizational chart, and neither initiative nor professional development are necessarily encouraged and, in its worst form, are ardently discouraged.

As the law enforcement profession has evolved, and as officers have become better educated and trained, more autonomous, and more capable of exercising effective decision-making; the need for “command and control” has steadily diminished, and is slowly being replaced by quality leadership practices. While there are a variety of forms of quality leadership strategies, nearly all embrace the concepts of the effective and ethical leadership practices that are recognized as paramount to organizational success and maintenance. Although the momentum and success of quality leadership programs is accelerating, there still lies within the profession a conflict between the new and the old; between the innovative, and the (supposedly) tried and true methods of command and control leadership.

The single largest contributing factor to this conflict is that many within our ranks still equate leadership with control, and they assume that to always exercise leadership over others they must also exercise control over others. While control in its time and place is necessary, leadership is not about control. To exercise control over something or someone requires the application of power to obtain a desired result. The most significant fault with this approach is that if the wrong type of power is used, or when the use of power is taken away, the results will always be less than satisfactory. Too often when this happens we revert back to our first nature of management and we try to make improvements by exercising even more control, usually with little resulting change.

Leadership, unlike control, is not about power; it is about influence. The use of control over others has inherent limitations, and requires that power be retained and focused on the leader in order to be used again later. Effective and ethical influence, on the other hand, can be achieved through countless quality leadership strategies, and empowers others by transferring the locus of leadership from leader to follower. After all, it is the results of the follower that are important, not the leader. From the followers perspective, the best leaders are those that inspire, lead by example, and put people above power. Evaluate any list comprised of the best traits of leaders and you will likely not find two words which have dominated the supervisory culture of law enforcement for decades; power and control.