The Leadership Imperative: Leader development in OntarioBy Matthew Wood, improve.ableModern policing is complex. Whether mediating a dispute or managing a crisis, it’s a job that not only requires a deep understanding of the law and society, but also the ability to lead with confidence and compassion.With growing demands for transparency and new changes in the law affecting how police work is done, it’s important that police leaders are prepared to guide officers through this evolving landscape. However, in Ontario, the approach to developing police leaders – particularly at this critical first-line level – lacks consistency. There’s no province-wide standard or guideline for leadership training, leading to a mix of practices across all of Ontario’s 44 police services. As a former soldier turned police officer, I was surprised by this fact. The military’s leadership development processes are quite robust, and I assumed that policing, as a para-military institution, would be the same.In 2020, I set out to study police leadership development practices in Ontario as part of my capstone graduate research project. My study considered how some large police services were preparing their police leaders, focusing on first-line supervisors. I compared what’s actually happening with what the research tells us likely works best in order to spark a conversation about how we can better train police leaders.FROM MANAGER TO LEADER According to the Police Executive Research Forum, there’s a noticeable gap in studies about the training and evaluation of supervisors. This gap is significant because these are the roles which directly influence the everyday actions and morale of our officers, who in turn are the ones interacting with the public.Traditionally, the lines between leadership and management have been blurred. While both roles are often confused as being the same, they’re actually different. Management is about making sure day-to-day tasks are completed efficiently, while leadership is about inspiring and guiding others towards a common goal, often involving change and adaptation to new challenges. Leaders quite literally lead people in a new direction.An international convention with representatives from 38 countries defined leadership as “the ability of an individual to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members.” It’s important to recognize that leadership isn’t limited to those with specific roles or responsibilities, but is about anyone’s actions and impact.How we think about what it means to be a leader has changed over time. It used to be all about what qualities a person had, like charisma or command presence. Now, we see leadership as something that depends on relationships and context. A key milestone in this evolution was the distinction between transactional and transformational leadership. Transformational leadership, which focuses on inspiring and elevating a person’s potential, has been identified as particularly effective in the public sector, including policing.EFFECTIVE LEADERS NOT ONLY ALIGN ACTIVITIES WITH ORGANIZATIONAL GOALS BUT ALSO IMPROVE THE PRODUCTIVITY AND WELL-BEING OF OFFICERS.Transformational leadership suggests that effective leaders do more than just oversee operations; they inspire, challenge and empower their teams in pursuit of some objective.They are characterized by their ability to do four things: give personalized support, stimulate innovative thinking, set an inspiring example and articulate a compelling vision of the future – or explain the “why.”There is much to gain from investing in leadership development. Effective leaders not only align activities with organizational goals but also improve the productivity and well-being of officers. They create positive work environments, encourage personal development, and improve the quality of service to the community.There are two barriers preventing these benefits from being realized; the prevalent transactional leadership style employed by most police leaders is focused on maintaining the status quo, and the dominant culture in policing is often described as rigid and resistant to change. Author David Bayley has described police culture as “an elaborate hierarchy of command” with an “insistence on compliance and punitive supervision based on detailed rules covering almost everything a police officer might do.” Dr. Holly Campeau once characterized a police service in Ontario as “exceptionally resistant to change.”THE STATE OF POLICE LEADERSHIP TRAINING Using a survey consisting of both openand closed-ended questions, I surveyed senior officers from different police services about the current state of leadership training in Ontario. Here’s what I found:Outside Versus In: The delivery of leadership development programs (LDP) often involved external partners with programs constructed around a competency framework.Hiring an outside expert can help speed up and facilitate change, but organizations that develop in-house expertise benefit from contextualized learning.Competencies: Although competencies can be helpful in that they define the “ideal” leader, it’s important to ask whether they are truly valued – especially if they’re not grounded in reality or measured in a meaningful way. Consider whether developing those competencies can be incorporated into the LDP itself. The Canadian Armed Forces’ “principles of leadership” are less a list of verbs and more of a set of actions expected from leaders (grounded in the concept of transformational leadership). These include achieving professional competence and pursuing self-improvement, clarifying objectives and intent, solving problems and making timely decisions.Candidate Selection: Although the aim is to train as many leaders as possible, the reality is that budgets likely limit the capacity to do so. In that case, it’s important to take a structured approach to selecting participants and the 360-degree feedback template is a valuable tool in this respect. It offers peers and subordinates the opportunity to endorse someone for training and to identify areas for improvement – something a supervisor may overlook.Mandatory Training: While some services reported mandatory leadership training for its supervisor candidates, others explained that it was optional. In the military, leadership training was a prerequisite to be considered for promotion, and the higher you rose, the more training you were required to do. In the case of this study, candidates were often sent for training only after promotion, suggesting that leadership development is an afterthought instead of a purposeful growth and succession strategy. Remarkably, no service reported offering leadership training to constables who hadn’t yet applied for promotion. This overlooks a vital opportunity to cultivate future leaders and enhance decision making at the frontline.Lifelong Learning: Continuing education as part of LDPs was not common among surveyed participants. This highlights a critical area for improvement in fostering ongoing professional development among police leaders. Continuous learning acts as a “booster” to initial training and ensures leaders remain up to date, encouraging them to evolve from outdated practices.Celebrating Graduates: The recognition and celebration of training completion varied among survey participants, with some services acknowledging it in annual performance evaluations (particularly for voluntary training participants). Celebrating this milestone is important for symbolic purposes as it allows chiefs and their senior staff to signal to the broader organization that leadership matters.Teaching Tactics: The instruction methods employed by Ontario’s police services are diverse, often combining classroom instruction, feedback and scenario-based exercises. Yet one particular leadership study by Seidle et al. (2016) suggests that exposure to hardship (under controlled, yet demanding conditions) might be the key ingredient to forging resilient leaders. The military offers this in droves, whether in the form of sleep deprivation, physical exertion or complex problem-solving exercises (often all at once).Benchmarking: Finally, a striking discovery was the absence of benchmarking LDPs against other services. This gap points to a missed opportunity for a comparative evaluation based on external standards and successes. York Regional Police recently partnered with York University’s Schulich School of Business, which would be a good place to start, as they likely have valuable insights to offer on their new program. The Toronto Police Service’s 2017 “People Plan” prioritized the redesign of its promotional process to move away from the rote memorization of procedures (a common selection tool for many of Ontario’s police services). As of the end of 2023, this goal had yet to be achieved.ENCOURAGING BENCHMARKING ENABLES POLICE SERVICES TO MEASURE THEIR LDPS AGAINST LEADING STANDARDS, FOSTERING A CULTURE OF CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT AND STRIVING FOR HIGHER ACHIEVEMENTS.Encouraging benchmarking enables police services to measure their LDPs against leading standards, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and striving for higher achievements. Partnerships with academic institutions can help infuse LDPs with contemporary research and broader insights, enriching the learning experience and enhancing the applicability of training content.THE ROLE OF PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT In Ontario, policing operates within a framework overseen by the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which, despite its mandate, has yet to define clear standards for leadership and management training. The province’s Policing Standards Manual, 2000, hasn’t been updated in 24 years, and doesn’t mention the words “leadership” or “management” once. This gap underscores a critical oversight in preparing police officers for leadership roles.While new recruits receive standardized basic training, leadership development is left to the discretion of individual services. This approach has resulted in a patchwork of training approaches, lacking consistency and comprehensive oversight across the province. However, it also opens the door to opportunity for transformative change. By embracing evidence-based practices, including rigorous program evaluations and a more inclusive approach to training across ranks, police services can begin to close this gap.The Ministry of the Solicitor General and the Ontario Police College are uniquely positioned to spearhead the standardization and elevation of training. Fortunately, this work has just begun. The OACP established an executive education working group with the ministry, as well as representatives from OPC, CPC, and several academic institutions.But the journey to developing effective police leaders involves more than just training; it also involves a shift in mindset around how leadership potential is recognized and nurtured. Leadership development programs need to be comprehensive, inclusive and continuous, offering ongoing learning opportunities and regular evaluations to make sure they prepare our officers for society’s continuously evolving needs.Matthew Wood, CD, served with the Toronto Police Service for 10 years and with the Canadian Armed Forces for 18, including a deployment to Afghanistan. He is a graduate of the Master of Public Policy, Administration and Law program at York University, and is a part-time professor of public safety. He is the CEO of improve.able Inc., a public safety consultancy. He can be reached at hello@improve-able.com.
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