By Chief John Robison, Alpharetta PD

Law enforcement leaders face an ongoing challenge of creating a culture that is conducive to not only keeping quality officers, but attracting new, qualified candidates as well.  This challenge has recently been heightened with the drastic changes seen in the perception of law enforcement throughout our society and country.  It’s becoming more and more difficult to not only attract good police candidates, but also retain quality officers. To consistently achieve this, agency leaders must create a work environment that provides officers with a high degree of satisfaction and commitment to the organization.

Research has shown the level of job satisfaction an employee enjoys is directly correlated with their commitment to an organization. Several factors impact the level of a police officer’s job satisfaction. First, the level of support a department provides its employees has a tremendous impact on officers’ job satisfaction. This includes the officers’ perception that department management is invested and interested in their professional and personal welfare. A study by the Pew Research Center found only three in ten police officers are supportive of their department’s upper management’s leadership approach (Morin, Parker, Stepler & Mercer, 2017). Because of this, police leaders have to be especially mindful of the inherent lack of trust line level officers have toward police management.

Police chiefs and command staff must also be cognizant of the importance of job satisfaction as it relates to officer productivity and commitment. There is no greater indicator of how well an employee produces than their satisfaction on the job (Macdonald, Kelly & Christen, 2019).

Department effectiveness is also strongly related to employee organizational commitment. Regardless of how well structured, organized, or designed a department may be, the most crucial component of organizational success is employee commitment. When leaders successfully create a culture where officers sense their role in achieving the department’s goals, vision, and mission are valued, they have a higher level of personal commitment and extra effort is more likely to be realized.

John Maxwell once stated every aspect of an organization rises and falls on leadership.  Employee satisfaction and commitment also rises and falls on leadership. To achieve this, it is imperative for agency leaders utilize a transformational leadership approach.

Bernard Bass is one of the foundational researchers of transformational leadership theory.  His research focused on the transactional and transformational leadership approaches, which are both widely used in the law enforcement profession. Ultimately, Bass believed organizations led by transformational leaders who integrated transactional elements were significantly more effective than leaders who only implemented a transactional style of leadership.

Transactional leadership is based on a cost-benefit exchange between the leader and the employee. Employees work to achieve rewards from their leader. Leaders establish goals/expectations and provide awards contingent on employees achieving those goals.  Heavily structured, formal organizations, such as law enforcement agencies, are more conducive to a transactional leadership style. Employee motivation developed by this quid pro quo exchange can create a level of trust between the employee and their leader. The employee does what is expected of them and the leader provides the agreed upon reward (i.e. pay).

If necessary, this leadership style can also punish employees for counterproductive behaviors. However, leaders who limit their approach to a transactional approach often miss valuable opportunities to inspire followers to strive to go beyond their own self-interest. Instead of officers only being concerned with their own personal goals, which correlates with transactional leadership, the most effective leaders understand the importance of employees being led in a manner that will result in them focusing on achieving the greater good of the organization.

Copious amounts of research have demonstrated a transformational approach to leadership is more likely to result in a higher level of employee job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Bernard Bass described this leadership style as:

  • Authentic transformational leaders motivate followers to work for transcendental goals that go beyond immediate self-interest. What is right and good to do becomes important.
  • Transformational leaders move followers to transcend their own self-interest for the good of the group, organization, or country.
  • Transformational leaders motivate followers and other constituencies to do more than they originally expected to do as they strive to higher-order outcomes (Bass & Avolio, 1993).

Bass’ theory characterizes four specific aspects of transformational leadership:

Idealized Influence: This relates to the leader’s ability to provide a role model for followers.  The leader understands the importance of modeling integrity and focuses on the needs of others.

Inspirational Motivation: Leaders with a charismatic style to motivate and inspire subordinates are more effective at communicating the mission and vision of the organization, to ensure followers have a clear understanding of the leader’s expectations.

Intellectual Stimulation: This refers to a leader’s ability to encourage subordinates to employ creativity and innovation. The goal is to always be improving, even when risk taking is needed to accomplish those goals.

Individualized Consideration: The leader provides special attention to tailor developmental opportunities for the follower’s personal growth and empower them to make decisions regardless of what their duties and responsibilities (Bass & Avolio, 1993).

Police chiefs and command staff who engage in a transformational leadership style are perceived as being more approachable and responsive to their officers’ needs. They also create a more supportive organizational environment that is vital for improving employee satisfaction and quality of work. In turn, this creates a higher level of job commitment.

Research conducted by Mary B. Sarver and Holly Miller demonstrated police chiefs engaging in a transformational leadership approach elicited a higher level of organizational commitment compared to chiefs engaged in transactional or passive/avoidant leadership. That same research also showed officers were more satisfied with the specific leadership of his or her chief when transformational leadership was being implemented. The inspirational component of transformational leaders and their ability to inspire subordinates to reach their full potential creates an impression the leaders are more effective than transactional leaders (Sarver & Miller, 2014).

Using this research as a foundation, a police leadership research project was conducted in 2019 of nine Metro-Atlanta area police departments. Police chiefs and officers in each department were surveyed using an instrument specifically designed to derive data associated with transformational and transactional leadership characteristics. The findings of this study reinforced the results of other research on employee job satisfaction and organizational commitment. In agencies in which police chiefs engaged in a transformational leadership approach, officers experienced higher levels of job satisfaction and employee commitment than in agencies where leaders relied upon a transactional approach.

The officer survey results provided a clear indication of a positive correlation between transformational leadership and job satisfaction.  The more police chiefs engage in transformational leadership dimensions, the higher the level of officer job satisfaction. As with job satisfaction, data derived from officer surveys also indicated a strong, positive correlation between transformational leadership and organizational commitment. The more police chiefs engage in transformational leadership dimensions, the stronger the officers’ commitment to the department.

Another interesting finding was related to the police chief’s self-perception of their leadership style.  All of the chiefs surveyed rated themselves as transformational leaders. However, only 44% of these chiefs were identified as transformational leaders by their officers. This data indicates police chiefs may feel they are providing an effective leadership style that resonates with their subordinates and inspires job satisfaction and extra effort.  But, there was a clear disconnect between some of the police chiefs’ and their officers’ perception of their leadership style. Ultimately, however, the officer’s perspective is what is most important as it correlates with his or her level of job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

While police chiefs can adequately manage departments utilizing other leadership styles, those seeking to successfully create a healthy culture must be willing to take ownership of improvements needed in their leadership approach.  To accomplish this, leaders must first develop a level of situational awareness to recognize what needs to be changed and a willingness to seek out the tools needed to make those changes.

Being a police officer is an inherently difficult and dangerous profession.  Transformational leadership is not a new concept, but the intentional engagement with officers that is utilized with this approach is needed now more than ever.  Officers who feel valued and engaged by leadership, experience more satisfaction and commitment to their department.  In the end, this benefits the officers, the department, and most importantly, the citizens being served.

Bass, Bernard M & Bruce J. Avolio. (1993). Transformational Leadership and Organizational Culture. Public Administration Quarterly, 17(1), 112.
MacDonald, P., Kelly, S., & Christen, S. (2019). A Path Model of Workplace Solidarity, Satisfaction, Burnout, and Motivation. International Journal of Business Communication, 56(1), 31–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/2329488414525467.
Morin, Rich, Parker, Kim, Stepler, Rene and Mercer, Andrew. (2017). Behind the Badge. Pew Research Center retrieved from https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/01/11/behind-the-badge.
Sarver, M., & Miller, H. (2014). Police chief leadership: styles and effectiveness. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, (1), 126.