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The Indecisive Leader

What is the greatest threat to your police department’s staff and future? You may already have one or more of these in your ranks and they will eat away at the very foundations of your leadership. No, it is not being infiltrated by some subversive element of terrorists but you could have an indecisive leader. Their inability to make a decision or lead without the direction of a higher up next to them then can jeopardize each and every mission. An indecisive leader of any rank can shutter your agency.

What we are

If there is one thing that police officers are respected for, it is decision making. Take the average weekend domestic dispute. He is drunk, she is ticked. He comes in, the money gone and she is mad and it escalates. In come the handsome police officers. Now, you are not going to solve this problem tonight. All of the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not solve this tonight. So, you come in and probably violate the protocol on how to handle a domestic dispute. Maybe even do the old put your hand on my shield and grant them a weekend divorce. They are happy, no more calls (until next weekend) but you have made a decision. Something that they could not do, you made one (right or wrong) and they respect you for making one.


We respect decision makers and it is what we do (most of the time). What about a fresh new sergeant. All he or she knows is that they are on probation and all they can recall is ‘getting the department sued’ and ‘getting someone killed’. Well that is refreshing and good for scaring them back into kindergarten.

How to deal with one

One of the worst things in life you can have is this indecisive leader. There are ways to handle it quietly and tactfully. Take the sergeant (or any rank for that matter) who is on the scene of a call. As they hum and haw over should we do this or that and what policy should they follow, step up to the plate. Offer them reasonable suggestions, which you know are the correct answers. Let them ponder this and magically let it be their idea. Eureka, they have taken the idea tossed to them like a softball and made it a hit. Avoid giving them the dumbed down solutions (shoot ’em and let God sort ‘em out). If the situation is not dynamic, allow them to talk out what they want to do, they even tip their hand on what they are doing. Do not humiliate them and do not let their authority be questioned in public. A quick tactful (but respectful) whisper or nod may be all that it is needed.

If they are out of their element, over their head or about to do something totally improper get to them and give them your insights. It is not uncommon to have senior patrol officers who have more real street experience than the new buck sergeant. If this new supervisor has any common sense whatsoever they should embrace the senior officers who act as substitute supervisors and field training officers (FTO) for their insights. A major problem here is that some of them do not want to appear weak or not as smart as their subordinates, this is a fatal flaw. Any supervisor worth their salt is going to capture and utilize their squad’s strengths and skills to the max. Those that don’t do this have a serious problem that will soon be your problem. In cases like this, you have to be more adept in understanding what the proper procedures are for you could be compromised. You are not obligated to follow any illegal or unlawful order; stupid obedience is not much a defense. If you are put into this sticky situation, know your rights and how to report this to a superior.

Never wanted to encourage the troops going over the head of the next in line but there comes a time where liability and officer safety comes to the front. If you should have to go to the commander have documentation. Have in your notes, dates, times and specifics. If you have other officers as witnesses, have them with you, if you can. Now this takes some serious moxie to begin with. If you approach this within decorum it should go without saying that you are there for the overall unit mission at heart. Do not go in whining making this appear as you don’t like the new boss. You may not yet respect the person who is wearing the new stripes but you must respect the stripes and those who put them on their sleeve.

Supervisor First Aid

One of the biggest mistakes law enforcement makes is promoting and not training or supporting the newest leaders. If I could offer anything it would be that new leaders have completed some form of leadership/supervisor school before promotion. The military has done this for years with basic NCO schools and done very successfully. Additionally, if your department does not have the luxury of having a ‘Field Training Sergeant’ program of some sort, have a mentor program where there is a life-line for them to learn and grow under. Young sergeants, listen to me and listen well. Find you a senior sergeant or whoever to sit down with and learn from their mistakes and their sage guidance. Additionally, if your officers come to you to help you, don’t reject them. You are now a squad leader; squads complete the mission not individuals. You are to get everyone home at the end of the shift, it is not you and you alone. Good squads share experiences and skills and they make the difference out there, you are not alone.

Finally, when you get your promotion nobody expects you to know it and be the salvation for all of law enforcement. New sergeants come and go, the secret is good ones learn and apply lessons learned. Making decisions is not that hard, you made them for years before you got promoted and your decision making got you here. Now go do it and quit being indecisive, get some moxie and get your swagger back. 


About The Author:

William L. "Bill" Harvey is a native Virginian. He served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps. He has a BA in criminology from St. Leo University and is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute of the University of Louisville (103rd AOC). Harvey served for over 23 years with the Savannah (GA) Police Department. He served in field operations, investigations and support services, and completed his career there as the director of training. He has published several articles in professional periodicals and has lectured nationwide. He is serving as a chief of police in central Pennsylvania area; a duty he’s performed for the past nine years. He is on the advisory board of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and other professional associations.