On our first weekend with our Policing and Law Enforcement MSc students we worked through the complexities of the politics of policing. The participants were able to fully reflect on some of the key issues that impact on modern policing bringing together not only their own experiences of operational policing but also analysis of relevant policing literature. They were a stimulating group and as a result of our interaction with them, this reflective piece of writing emerged; its purpose to consider how policing leaders learn and also to explore some of the context within which policing education currently takes place.


Learning to Learn

In our experience policing leaders can be difficult to satisfy when they attend a traditional learning environment and leadership development programmes can be problematic if they do not address a number of learning preferences:

  • Participants like to be entertained and they love a good story telling session as a means of translating theory into practice.
  • Participants need to be engaged at both cognitive and emotional levels.
  • Session leaders needs to be credible in their field (not necessarily policing).
  • Session leaders need to have some understanding and empathy regarding the complexity of law enforcement.
  • Session leaders needs to give a bit of themselves in order to demonstrate their authenticity.

We have also found over the years that policing leaders who hold challenging roles and demonstrate their weaknesses, self-doubt, fear and vulnerability – authentically connect with future policing leaders who themselves are struggling to make sense of their own state.

Political Positioning

We believe that leadership training and development in policing is a political event. In the 12 years that we led the design team for the Strategic Command Course at Bramshill our issue was never how to get speakers or educators to come to the college and address the participants; it was more about how to get the right people, who had experienced both highs and lows in their careers, to spend some of their valuable time with participants – helping them explore how best to shape the future direction of the service. The politics arrived when we had individuals who would forcefully want to ‘speak to and not with’ the participants on the programmes.

An unprepared speaker, demanding to address a policing audience as some occasionally did – could cause themselves considerable professional embarrassment. For if there is one thing a policing audience is outstanding at – it is judging the legitimacy of a speaker. In a world where policing leaders develop intense emotional intelligence skills, often operating on a well-developed ‘gut’ feeling, anyone who dared to try and ‘fake it to make it’ – was often exposed.

This was powerfully demonstrated when we had two speakers ‘back to back’ on a leadership forum talking about the skills required of policing leaders. The first speaker had forcefully pushed herself into the timetable, manipulating her ‘position of power’ in order to spread her knowledge. She took little advice from the design team, preferring to adopt the professional stance of ‘expert’. The second speaker had been asked to give an input and had demonstrated a degree of reluctance and humility in talking through her experiences. ‘Are you sure I have value to add?’ was her response to being asked to speak.

The crux of the learning event came when each speaker was asked ‘what they did when they found themselves in a spot of professional difficulty?

The first speaker, without hesitating answered: “Seek out, and then follow the power.”

In a separate session the second speaker was asked the same question. She was reflective then answered with passion: “Always follow the truth – no matter where it takes you.”

It was one of those ‘moments-of-real- learning’ that remained with the participants throughout the programme. Participants had no idea of the small ‘p’ politics that had taken place in the background, but they saw on the one hand the manifestation of a self-centred speaker who was more on a ‘transmit’ mode while on the other hand – an ethically self-assured person – on ‘reflective’ mode.

As we look towards the future development of policing leaders we have to be fully cognisant of those who want to ‘follow power’ and those who ‘seek the truth’. Our experience tells us that the former often lack essential emotional intelligence skills to bring people with them, but often have a strong sense of self-belief; the latter can have firmly held principles and values, yet ironically frequently lack a degree of self-confidence. The power / truth dichotomy is not the only challenging aspect of leadership, but it is a significant one when an organisation is going through a period of crisis of legitimacy.


Policing is a complex job and there are many self-defined experts emerging through this current challenging period. As policing seems to consistently and with shocking regularity shooting itself in the foot, some aspects of the media create a series of linked stories that undermine the legitimacy of the service. In the UK there is one national newspaper in particular whose relationship with policing could only be described as caustic – this is a pain that needs to be absorbed into the organisation. Only policing leaders following the truth – ‘regardless where it takes them’ will manage to ultimately re-engage a direct relationship between policing legitimacy and communities confidence. This is a Peels Principal enshrined in policing:

‘To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.’

Never before has it been so important to authentically help policing leaders at all levels to shape the future direction of the service. But leaders also need to be sensitive to the needs of their followers. As any good leader will tell you – those who ‘do the job’ know far more about its competing complexities than those who lead the field. We suspect that front line leaders must be exhausted just listening to the advice – often contradictory – about how to do their jobs. Front line practitioners desperately need to be freed-up to learn or they will become de-skilled automated reporting units. Anyone can report what is right or wrong – it is the grey areas that require professional judgement.

In the current period of challenge, does policing really encourage discretion or has the main focus become complaint avoidance? One only has to count the number of emails that a person is ‘copied-into’ to know that the bureaucratic policing culture has got itself into a rationality of protection – a ‘covering ass’ mindset.

Passionate Intensity

It was Yeats who wrote:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Policing leadership is in grave danger, if not there already, of knocking the conviction out of its operational leaders in the name of passionate intensity.

Do the public really care if the burglary rate shows a 5% reduction (whatever that means) on last year? Who actually believes statistics anyway and are they not the focal point upon which ‘spin’ centres? Is it not the case that communities would rather connect with a compassionate professional attending when they need support than be fed with statistical data in some attempt at reassuring them? Are we creating environments of exhausting activity to prove to a public something that is not even on their horizon?

We have had the privileged position of helping to develop leaders in all ranks and roles in policing for almost two decades and we have never seen them look so tired.

Question Everything

police-learningIt is vital that those with a inspiring story to tell about leadership have an opportunity to be heard and are listened too. There is far too much professional knowledge being brushed aside in favour of systems and processes. Front line practitioners possess what the French philosopher Foucault called ‘subjugated knowledge’ – a kind of operational knowledge that is often forgotten or suppressed because it does not have official or scientific approval. Police officers and staff have a right to shape their own environments minus some degree of interference from above. Chomsky wrote, “I was never aware of any other option, but to question everything.” If policing leadership is to further develop, it needs to question its own environment and cultures like never before.

Therefore, it is critical that we create educational learning environments for policing – in the classroom or, with some care, in the workplace. Every policing leader needs:

  • An opportunity to step back and reflect – so the mind can conceive a new normality.
  • To have good educators around them who can challenge the current paradigm as well as stimulate new thinking about the future context.
  • Encouraging the theoretical and practical exploration of policing – to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Reflection will help policing leaders better understand what they already know – that the existing state of policing cannot be sustained. We all need policing to become far more of a learning organisation – and mean it. The French poet Rene Char once wrote:
“They who come into the world to disturb nothing deserve neither our attention nor our respect.”

Policing desperately needs its leaders in all ranks and roles to positively disturb the current way of doing business. This is not about waiting for strategic leaders to set the direction; rather it is about moving the organisation forward by taking more control over ‘my’ environment and then influencing future direction. Policing needs to avoid at all cost the danger of drifting into passivity.

Diversity and Difference

Two years ago, at a meeting in the HQ of a world leading IT company their team stated:

“We seek out those in the organisation who are awkward and cause us some difficulty with our thinking. They are literally on the fringe of our cultures. We need them to help us move the organisation forward. They give us an edge because they don’t think or act like the rest of us.”

That company has a large share of its market. Could we be so bold as to suggest that in the current policing environment, these types of people are strategically silenced and their awkward voices become whispers in the white noise of activity? Diversity and difference need to be more than words on a strategy document – this is where the real value to an organisation will emerge.

The current and future context of policing is far too challenging to silence the awkward, ignore those who make us feel uncomfortable and shun the politically clumsy who don’t comprehend the rules. Policing needs to develop a more informed way of doing business that monitors knowledge and understanding not meaningless performance data. Its not an either / or for we know, that regardless of what they say, government still needs its comfort blanket of facts and figures. By focusing on the wrong end of this equation, the data, professional policing and leadership development has for too long now, been denied its direct link to vocational practice.

There are stories out there that need to be captured, experiences that need to be harnessed, learning that needs to be spread like a virus throughout the service and some comfortable conformity that needs to be disturbed. The ‘what works in policing’ agenda will help this process as long as it does not become hijacked as yet another rationality model, monitoring the activity of those who deliver the organisational outcomes. Those who think differently and can bring people with them on the policing journey are the key to success. Modern policing as with all other occupations has to deal with the public’s decreasing tolerance of error; a potentially diminishing trust in policing – where the trust continuum is moving towards ‘prove you can be trusted’ and away from ‘trust as the default position’; and finally a constantly increasing community expectation that policing can deal with the issues that other agencies would prefer to avoid. What we do know is that the current state of policing cannot be sustained in its existing format.


In the Policing Matters team we have nearly a century of experience in policing and leadership development and unlike before, we find it difficult to read the ruins. The organisational touchstones that have modernised policing to its current state are no longer fit for purpose and the political dynamics surrounding policing in the UK is at an unprecedented level. Policing may wish to hold onto the 1829 Peelian Principles, but they are under challenge – policing needs its leaders to think, behave and deliver a different agenda in order to keep shaping the policing mandate. When Policing and Crime Commissioners are described as ‘The Chief’ and direct entry at Superintendent level becomes legitimised – we know that the environment within which policing is being delivered has changed potentially beyond current recognition.

Reflect and Learn

The tendency is to take action; but what kind of action? Our conviction and our experience tell us that the policing leaders need to take a short time to ‘stand still, reflect and learn’. Energy is being drained out of the policing organisation by incessant activity – we cannot and should not be asking staff to do more. We need to give them space to think and ask them how to deliver the vocation of policing in a different manner.

Be Learning and not learned about the future of policing.

We have worked with leaders in both the public and private sector for a number of years and we would say with all confidence that policing has some remarkable people that do incredible things against the most challenging and dangerous of backdrops. The new horizon requires these leaders to reduce the need for ‘passionate intensity’ around unfulfilled focused outcomes that are satisfying no one and move towards helping staff and leaders find a little space and encouragement to think differently in informed yet challenging learning environments.

It was Graham Green who once wrote: “Every now and then a door opens and lets the future through.”  this might be a moment in policing history when a new door needs to be opened.

We are really look forward to the next session with the MSc Students where we will be Evaluating Policing Performance.


Garry Elliott · April 9, 2014 at 10:40 am

Mark and others.

Thank you very much for sharing this. It has made me think more than anything I have read for months.

David C. Couper · April 9, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Very interesting. The curricula seems exciting. I am a retired USA police chief who has written a book about improving police and also maintain a blog by the same name on wordpress.com.

The book is “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police.”

Keep up the good work!

Chris · April 9, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Mark I enjoyed the above. I wonder how many of those officers and staff referred to as being on the fringes, those that give the company the cutting edge stay there and how long can they?

How many are consumed into the culture, ‘this is how we do it around here’ way of working. I would like to think of myself as as being on the fringe in this regard but on reflection I’m not always, I don’t question everything but I will now with a clear vision towards ‘truth no matter where it takes you’ but with the confidence of my knowledge and experience.

I look forward to our next module

Rob Heaton · January 23, 2015 at 1:18 pm

This is an excellent article, thank you.
In 2013 I attended the SEBP conference at Cambridge. It was attended by many of the great and good of policing, and underpinned numerically by attendees of the Police Executive Programme there.
Although it wasn’t part of the subject matter of the conference, it caused me to wonder how police officers in top positions, reconcile academic truths (eg limitation of police effectiveness) with the need to become a chief evangelist for the force and Home Office party lines (eg total causal connection between policing and crime rates). The reality is that corporate culture is bigger than and intolerant of nonconformist individuals. You cannot keep having conversations with chief officers on the basis that their prior assumptions might not be correct.
‘Truth no matter where it takes you’ is career limiting and I guess that most will lead a parallel existence of ‘truth at uni, power at work’.
Thanks again,
Rob Heaton

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