Chapter 7: Discretion, Supervision, and Leadership

7.6 Transactional and Transformational Leadership

Huberts, Kaptein, and Lasthuizen (2007) found that effective role modelling is especially significant in demonstrating moral behaviour, while strictness is especially effective in limiting fraud, corruption, and the misuse of resources. As an extension of strictness, the ethics of law enforcement agencies are likely to be greater when there are rules, regulations, and systems of oversight that carefully manage law enforcement behaviour. In the case of law enforcement agencies, the behaviour usually occurs on the street, where street police officers are interacting with civilians without supervision. Because the police are out of view and not supervised for much of their working day, leadership must evolve away from strictness as a way to promote ethical conduct.

There are two distinct models of leadership that operate within large organizations: transformational and transactional. Historically, due to the paramilitary nature of law enforcement, leadership has largely been transactional. Transactional leadership in law enforcement is a style of management used by those who are more oriented toward bureaucracy and maintaining the status quo. Transactional leaders tend to take the decision-making powers away from those they supervise and to make decisions on their own, not yielding power to those beneath them in the hierarchy. This leadership style often runs contrary to what is practised in law enforcement: the requirement to exercise discretion throughout the ranks (Bass, 1990).

Bowie (2000) asserts that leadership is not effective unless managers empower subordinates to make decisions; however, the empowerment of subordinates is at odds with the military hierarchical system. What is required is a system that allows subordinates to make operational decisions and leadership that is willing to risk the mistakes that result from these decisions. Mastrofski (2004) suggests the way to achieve these goals is through transformational leadership, which guides officers to make the right decisions by following the moral lead of their managers who possess the moral standards that are shared by the organization. Failure to promote these values will lead subordinates to mirror the unethical practices of their leader, resulting in poor decisions. There are risks associated in allowing subordinates to use discretion, such as forgetting, missing, or just not adhering to the morals of their leader; risk is unavoidable when subordinates are given increased discretion.

The risk of poor decisions at the operational level requires strong leadership in which managers not only understand the risk but also are willing and able to bear the weight of this risk (Villiers, 2003). Such a style of leadership is difficult within a culture that is so deeply entrenched in a military type of structure, where following policy and rules are expected throughout the hierarchy. Villiers (2003, p. 28) describes this as “mechanistic bureaucratization” in which the policing service operates in an autocratic style, which is contrary to the autonomy police officers have in exercising their discretion. Villiers (2003) further argues that a more democratic style of leadership is required in order to effectively lead the officer who exercises more discretion than his or her manager.

Transformational leadership is conducive to discretionary policing and, in its purest form, empowers subordinates to make moral decisions that are reflective of the organization (Bass, 1990). The transformational leader requires followers to transcend their own interests to uphold the interests of the organization by focusing on future and long-term goals instead of short-term satisfaction (Bass, 1990). A transformational leader is required to exert his or her organizational morals on subordinates who will in turn make decisions that reflect the leader’s values and therefore the organization’s values. The result of such effective leadership is a subordinate who, when confronted with operational decisions, will be able to make the same decisions that his or her leader would make. In this way, a transformational leader is a “developer of people and a builder of teams who inspire their followers to act and make decisions” (Bass, 1990, p.54). Bass (1990) further describes those that possess such qualities as being naturally gifted and suggests that one is either born with the trait or not, which renders them a valuable commodity.

The notion that transformational leaders are born, not made, presents a problem for law enforcement agencies that need sergeants and other managers to possess both operational knowledge and transformational qualities. The possibility that managers cannot be taught transformational qualities potentially eliminates those who hold only operational knowledge as an attribute. Tourish, Craig, and Amernic (2010, p.41) describe such leaders as “exceptional people” who are also powerful and have the ability to understand organizational values as well as the personalities of their followers. Police managers, having risen through the ranks, may or may not be capable of developing such attributes and as result, require training. In their qualitative study of managers, Hay and Hodgkinson (2006) found managers who felt that training in these qualities is a difficult prospect and something that cannot be learned in courses. This makes it difficult for those police managers who are not born with these qualities to learn and apply them on a regular basis. Courses in leadership are used to train officers of all ranks; however, there have been few studies that have determined whether this training leads to transformational leadership or not. The question remains: can competent operational officers learn the skills to be transformational leaders?

The notion of transformational leadership in policing is sometimes at odds with police culture for the following reasons:

  • Officers are unlikely to embrace the transformational leader due to their inculcation in the blame culture where blame is assessed when discretion has failed and a mistake is made (Villiers, 2003). The blame culture is a double-edged sword:
    • First, operational officers mistrust their superiors, believing that if they make a mistake, they will be held accountable.
    • Second, managers have difficultly extricating themselves from the blame culture when assessing the poor discretionary decision of a subordinate.
  • Police culture is generally characterized by cynicism toward leadership, and this is especially true toward leaders who are charismatic and are purveyors of transformational leadership values (Villiers, 2003).
  • Transformational leaders must fight the blame culture and be willing to accept the inevitable risk associated with decisions made at the operational level. As discretion increases, so too does the risk of more mistakes. The manager who assumes the role of transformational leader must accept this risk as a part of officers’ development rather than as an opportunity to blame.
  • In acknowledging the inevitability of discretion, Mastrofski (2004) maps out transformational leadership as the best way to ensure proper and effective control of discretion among operational police officers. Transformational leadership convinces officers to make the right discretionary choices by persuading them to achieve the right goals without the need to directly supervise them. Officers functioning beyond the view of their superiors will need to use discretion, and if they have adopted the values of their leader (and therefore their organization), they will likely make decisions that are based on these shared values (Bass, 1990).


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Ethics in Law Enforcement Copyright © 2015 by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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