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How senior police leaders learn the art of leadership

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posted on 2023-10-31, 22:52 authored by Shane Doyle
Despite the intense scholarly focus on leadership development in corporate settings, the importance of developing good leaders in police organisations has received scant attention. The dearth of scholarship on police leadership means that the distinctive demands of policing are often overlooked in addressing the question of unique leadership requirements. This gap also suggests that we do not yet understand how the characteristics of policing drive a need for tailored approaches to developing police leaders. This research addressed this gap in the literature by initially exploring how senior officers learn the art of leadership within an Australian policing context through interviews with jurisdictional experts (Study 1). The focus of this research then centred on commissioned officers within the Queensland Police Service (QPS) through a survey questionnaire (Study 2) and stakeholder interviews (Study 3). Drawing upon the literature and theoretical frameworks of leader development models, this investigation explored what development methods best advanced officers’ leadership together with other factors that facilitated or constrained their development. The research then centred on the extent to which recognised factors—such as the unique challenges of policing, the existence of feedback and the extent of support—lead to the enhancement of senior police leaders. Study 1 explored policy frameworks across eight (8) Australian police agencies that revealed each jurisdiction applied a unique approach to leader development, reflecting the parochial and independent way each agency administered its policing functions. In study 2 the survey questionnaire yielded a 61 percent response rate comprising officers who were predominately male, highly educated and mature (in age and service). Inherent cultural and organisational characteristics encouraged officers to adopt a “cradle to the grave” approach to their policing careers. In the final study, interviews with twenty (20) QPS commissioned officers revealed participants comprised a small cohort of survivors who had successfully navigated the politically charged police environment. This study highlighted officers’ journeys in acquiring their leadership was underscored by being contextually grounded within the difficult and challenging organisational milieu of policing. In addressing the research questions, the three studies, when analysed, broadly supported the 70:20:10 learning model which theorises leadership is primarily acquired by job experiences (70%) and to a lesser extent through relationships (20%) and via formal or structured learning (10%). This model did not present as a measured outcome which arose from allocating resources or priorities according to a clearly defined 70:20:10 outcome ‘rule’. Instead, the (approximate) 70:20:10 distribution of leadership learning was almost certainly the outcome of an interaction between the structure of the police leadership environment and the reality of the field. This research found on the job work was their primary “classroom” for learning leadership, with the majority of learning acquired through informal means (i.e. job experiences and relationships). However, the three components of the 70:20:10 process needed to be better articulated, planned and seamlessly integrated. In particular, more tangible and coherent links need to be developed between formal learning and informal learning and greater acknowledgement that informal learning requires the same levels of support and feedback to that supplied for formal learning. The research found superiors played a pivotal role in the leadership development process; either as facilitating or hindering an officers’ leadership. The findings revealed that many superiors were found wanting as role models with officers’ learning more about what leadership behaviours to avoid replicating; by observing the key characteristics of superiors who were bad role models (i.e. reverse role-modelling). Diverse cultural factors were found to hinder officers from advancing their leadership including the rank orientated and risk adverse culture and the powerful tradition of favouring management over leadership. Various macro-organisational characteristics also stymied officers’ development including the failure to integrate leadership development into the organisations’ infrastructure, evidenced by policies and frameworks that lacked strategic maturity and intent. The findings also broadly support the two-part leadership development model promoted by McCauley et al. (2010a). Within the fertile contextual milieu of policing, officers’ key characteristics were highlighted in the first component of the model. Commissioned officers were a highly homogenous group that were winners who had flourished within the unique developmental system and distinctive police culture. Their characteristics were critical in scaling the rungs of the highly competitive and occasionally brutal leadership ladder, including possessing warrior like skills that reflected the deeply entrenched macho police culture. The research also lent support to the second part of the model comprising vital elements of challenge, support (coupled with feedback), together with the pivotal elements of (i) leadership context with (ii) varied developmental experiences, moulded by challenge, feedback and support. The research highlighted that the quality and extent of support and feedback provided by superiors, coupled with their key characteristics proved instrumental in officers’ developing as leaders. Arguably more strategic roles played by senior leaders are part science and part art, however, the findings suggest there is relatively little “science”, (formal learning) and a great deal of art (on-the-job training). Officers were thrown into significant, ill-controlled and unpredictable challenges, often with a considerable lack of training and resources, and it was the on-the-job challenges that ultimately defined them as leaders. Another key issue that emerged was that officers were not being “developed” by the police service but had rather survived the difficulties thrown up by their work. This meant the nature of police “leadership development” resulted in survivors becoming leaders and the ad hoc system of police development may have inadvertently “weeded out” talented individuals. Superiors’ permeated this process by possessing a hopeful but ultimately naïve assumption that informal learning occurred naturally and by merely adopting a “set and forgot” approach would eventually culminate in officers’ automatically acquiring leadership capability. Such an approach reflects a “cream rises to the top” philosophy of leader development involving the misconception that the best talent will emerge regardless of the quality of developmental experiences provided. Finally, this program of research highlighted a conflict between how headquarters would like to see policing and police leadership training, and the reality of how officers acquired their leadership primarily in the field. At a senior level, police may well imagine or wish that the process was more structured and orderly, and governments require the process to be documented and predictable, but out in the field a battle is ongoing, despite the wishes of leadership. So there is a tension, or juxtaposition between a desire for order, and a reality of chaos in the police workplace which has implications for how leaders are developed.



Central Queensland University

Additional Rights

I give permission for the digital version of my thesis to be made available on the web, via CQUniversity’s institutional repository, ACQUIRE, for the purpose of research or private study, unless permission has been granted by the University to restrict access for a period of time.

Open Access

  • Yes

Era Eligible

  • No


Dr Olav Muurlink ; Dr Linda Colley ; Dr Shelly Wakefield

Thesis Type

  • Doctoral Thesis

Thesis Format

  • Traditional