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Prerequisites for a future commander

At one point in my career I was asked to review a job description for a ranking commander at another department. The ad piqued my interest. After reading some more job announcements a theme started to emerge. I did not see (in these at least) a few desired traits I value. Most ads mentioned the boilerplate knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) usually churned out by human resources. Oftentimes I believe these are standardized to make job descriptions a one-size-fits-all. There could have been some cutting and pasting going on, too.

If you are reading this to get a leg up on a promotion or job in the future, read on. I have a few KSAs that I find particularly valuable—skills not often mentioned in ads, but skills that bring real experience and benefits for those who have them in their hip pocket.

If I could have one major “do over” in my career, I would rethink my training selections. Like most young officers I sought out the tactical, defensive tactics and other testosterone-laced police training. If I could make a recommendation to any officer in his or her formative years, I would tell them to invest heavily in interpersonal communication skills. Some of us are naturals with communication and some of us struggle, and a few just don’t have any. To apply these skills within the confines of law enforcement is a major plus. In retrospect, there are probably some admissions I could have garnered that would have helped to solve a few more cases had I employed better communication skills.

Most young cops don’t value the art of obtaining human information for investigations as they should. Many do not value the art of “tactical talking” like Verbal Judo or MOAB until they are required to. Any candidate for promotion to supervisor up to chief needs to have superior interpersonal communication skills. This is a must, not a compromise. Do yourself a favor and invest in one of these programs. And if there is an advanced class take that, too.

Instruction and public speaking skills are next on the list. The ability to assemble data, present it and ensure understanding are key components to success. When a young supervisor must be present at a Compstat or staff meeting this should be second nature. After a first fumbling presentation, the message is lost along with creditability. I have seen some extremely capable commanders who have little presence in front of a friendly audience, much less at an angry community meeting. Being technically and tactically proficient in your job is one thing, being able to convey a message to others is a much sought-after trait.

How often will a rising commander use public speaking skills? If you think this is infrequent at best, think again. Especially when you become the chief, the demands are constant. Most promotional assessment centers now include a public speaking element, either before a citizen’s board, city council or press conference scenario. Once you make chief you will be called up by your community’s service, fraternal, and philanthropic organizations. Everybody wants the new chief to address them. Now is the time to impress, not mumble. As a chief you cannot avoid public commitments but for so long. When the requests come in you have to make the appearance, so make it memorable.

Leadership experience is a must. Here are some suggestions on how to gain some before your application. Become a leader within a local service, church or fraternal organization. Leading others under different circumstances can be a test of your resolve. Most organizations have a member or two who can pluck anyone’s nerve. As a leader you gain experience in dealing with the rabble-rousers.

Additionally, this station in life gives you direction and guardianship over other people’s money. In other words, real-world budget experience. As you proceed through the chairs of your organization, you will sooner or later have the budget under your control. To develop and oversee this process of an organization looks great on a resume.

I have not covered all of the required prerequisites for command and chiefdom. Spend some time reading advertisements and make notes. You should have completed all of the educational and occupational requirements by now. What I have written about are the little things that make a big difference in front of the board, and in front of the department you will some day lead.


William L. “Bill” Harvey has served for over 23 years with the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department and as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps. He has a BA in criminology and is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute of the University of Louisville.