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Essential character traits of a modern police leader

September 23, 2012

By David Baker and Alistair Harkness

The most intrinsic traits of a good police leader, including the foremost leader of the organisation, are honesty and integrity. Trust and respect of both government and the community depend on the police leader’s commitment, intelligence and communication skills. The quality of a chief commissioner, who is supreme at the apex of the hierarchical, pseudo-military institution with its rigid chain of command and control structures, is arguably more important to both community and government than that of any other public sector organisations (see Macdonald in Etter and Palmer 1995:231). Police leaders act in an uncertain, unpredictable, rapidly changing and problematic environment that is affected by regional, national and global events. The Victorian chief commissioner is ultimately responsible for organisational policies, practices and services. The chief faces pressures from government, police officers and the community; must deal with extensive media scrutiny; balance the aggressive lobbying of the Victoria Police Association (VPA); and encounter potential inquiries and reviews (Mitchell and Casey 2007; Baker 2000).

Former New South Wales police commissioner John Avery reflected on the gravitas confronting a police leader: “The weight of the collective responsibility for the actions of the hundreds or even thousands of police officers for Police Commissioners is fearsome” (Avery 1995 in Etter and Palmer:v). He defined the leadership role as one “assuredly about mobilising people for tackling tough problems” (Avery 1995 in Etter and Palmer:vi). Mark Finnane (1994:32) argues that “the role and influence on commissioners of policing has been one of the most contentious public issues in the relations between police and government in Australia”. What needs to be added to this statement is the contentious and controversial nature of commissioner appointments, resignations and sackings.

The role of chief commissioners has become more complex, complicated and vexed with the changing nature of society (Fleming and Hall 2008). Police organisations in Australia have developed as centralised, authoritarian, insular and bureaucratic hierarchies, with the commissioner holding the ultimate source of authority in the organisation (Finnane 1994:30,34). Historically, police leaders were autonomous: answerable to the force and inwardly focused (Fleming and Hall 2008). However, as Fleming and Hall (2008) postulate, commissioners of police – in an increasingly complex social, economic and political context – operate in the public arena (not that this was not the case at times in the past). In an Australian context, they are now also accountable personally for individual actions, collectively for the organisation, and externally to governments with agendas, powerful police unions, an omnipresent media and a fragmented and diverse community. Internal management remains central for police commissioners but external networks and accountabilities of policing also focus a commissioner’s mind. According to Rhodes (1997:57), modern police managerial leadership demands a facilitating, accommodating and bargaining style.

External contingencies can be fluid, unpredictable, open to rapid change and sometimes chaotic. A chief commissioner’s ability to facilitate, accommodate and bargain with various forces in a highly volatile law and order political maelstrom will always test a police leader’s capacities. Delicately (and with integrity) balancing internal and external demands is essential to avoid the independence of the Office – held in such high status internally by police officers and externally by the community –being compromised.


Baker D (2000) ‘The Changing Paradox of Police Unionism: Employees or Officers?’ in Griffin G (ed) Unions 2000: Retrospect and Prospect, National Key Centre in Industrial Relations Conference, Monash University, Monograph 14, Melbourne, pp. 22-43

Etter B and Palmer M (1995) Police Leadership in Australasia Federation Press Leichhardt

Finnane M (1994) Police and Government: Histories of Policing in Australia Oxford University Press Melbourne

Fleming J and Hall R (2008) ‘Police Leadership in Australia: Managing Networks’ in Hart P and Uhr J Public Leadership: Perspectives and Practices ANU Epress Canberra ACT

Mitchell M and Casey J (2007) ‘Requirements of police managers and leaders from sergeant to commissioner’ in Mitchell M and Casey J (eds) Police Leadership and Management Federation Press Leichhardt pp 4-20

Rhodes R (1997) Understanding Governance: Policy networks, governance, reflexivity and accountability Open University Press Buckingham

From → Policing

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