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Character Development

6 Law Enforcement Leadership Principles I Learned From My Trailblazing Father

6 Leadership Principles I Learned From My Trailblazing Cop Father

I followed my father into a long law enforcement career. It’s not unusual to see kids follow their fathers into this profession; our agency has many multi-generational police families (although we are the only one with three generations of officers bearing the same name). I learned a lot about leadership from my dad, although it wasn’t in a police setting. I came out of the Academy the same month my father retired from the department, so we never had the chance to work together. What I learned from my dad I learned in the piney woods of Northeast Texas. My dad settled in his hometown after retiring, and my kids grew up visiting him in his wooded 110 acre property. It was there, as I followed my father on excursions into in the dense, humid piney woods of Texas, that I learned several important principles of law enforcement leadership.

Although he had several paths memorized in these woods, the density and rapid growth on his property quickly obscured the trails to anyone who wasn’t already familiar with the territory. In fact, I often got lost in those woods when navigating them on my own. But when we were together, with my dad leading us back to his small hunting cabin, he blazed the trail and taught us the simplest (but most important) principles of leadership:

Trailblazers Know Where They’re Going
My dad knew the terrain; he’d been there before, had a destination in mind and knew how to get there. Good law enforcement leaders know where they are going, even when others don’t yet see it. They’re visionary and understand what it will take to reach the goal.

Trailblazers Are Willing to Take the Risk
My father typically ended up with all the cuts and scrapes at the end of one of our excursions. He was the guy with the machete, the one who went first and was responsible for clearing the path so the rest of us to get through safely. The path was much tighter for my dad, and much wider for everyone else. Good leaders are willing to take the abuse, shoulder the burden and take the responsibility. When they do this for us, our confidence in them grows. We may not know exactly where we are going, but we know we’re not going to get too badly beaten up along the way.

Trailblazers Become Part of the Excursion
My dad went with us; he didn’t simply give us directions from the comfort of his living room. He went first and took just as many steps as we did to get to the end of the trail. Good law enforcement leaders never ask their others to do something they wouldn’t do first. When we watch them do it, we learn until we have the confidence to do it on our own.

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Trailblazers Stay Close
My dad knew better than to get too far out in front of us. Those woods are dense and dark in places; if he didn’t stay close, we’d soon be calling out for him. Good leaders lead from close proximity. They teach and translate, stay connected to their team, and know them by name. They invest in their people, if not with as much time as they might like, with all the heart they can muster.

Trailblazers Are Less Concerned with the Trail Than They Are with the Blazers
My father has taken many excursions with my kids into those piney woods, but it isn’t because he’s fascinated with the trees or his property (he gets to see that stuff every day). It’s because he’s fascinated with my kids. Good law enforcement leaders understand people are the mission. At the end of the day, an organization that invests in and maximizes the potential of its people is far more likely to succeed in its mission. Why? Because people are the mission. The journey and the travelers are more important than the destination.

Trailblazers Eventually Get Out of the Way
While my dad always led us out to the cabin, he never led us back. My kids did that on their own. They’d seen their grandfather get us there, after all. My father loved to watch my young children become the trailblazers. Good leaders know the goal of leadership is replacement. Good leaders take the risk, teach their people, lead by example and raise up the next generation of law enforcement leaders. Good leaders have a succession plan in mind and invest in the men and women who will someday take their place, once they, as leaders, get out of the way. Every one of us is a leader; we all lead someone, and most of us, as Christian police officers, hope to someday lead our friends or family to Christ. Click To Tweet

I bet my father never realized how much he was teaching us about leadership on those occasional excursions. Some people are innate leaders; they just get it. The rest of us can learn from their example. Now that I’ve gotten out of the way for my own son so he can embark on a law enforcement career of his own, I hope he remembers what he learned from his grandfather. Every one of us is a leader; we all lead someone, and most of us, as Christian police officers, hope to someday lead our friends or family to Christ. It’s in those moments, when I’m sharing the truth and living my life in front of non-believers, that I ask myself if I’m a good trailblazer. Do I know where I am going? Do I have a clear idea on how to get there? Am I willing to lead by example, take the risk and go first? Do I care more about people than my arguments or evidences? Am I willing to get out of the way and allow them the space and opportunity to make a decision for Christ? Trailblazing can teach us a lot about every form of leadership, even as we lead our friends and family to the truth.

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Written By

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. J. Warner presently serves as a chaplain for his agency and holds a BA in Design (from CSULB), an MA in Architecture (from UCLA), and an MA in Theological Studies (from Gateway Seminary).

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mike Browne

    October 5, 2022 at 6:52 am

    Jim, Really good article. Great points on leadership. I especially like the point about people. It is so easy to get caught up on accomplishing your objectives or goals and forget about developing your people. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I always enjoyed working around your dad. Great guy.

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