5 Leadership Rules from the SWAT Team

If sixteen years (and counting) on the police SWAT team has taught me one thing, it's leadership development. Above providing all the tactical, team, and individual technical skills training, my team knows how to grow crops of leaders.

It's a cultural thing - where the first man on scene or the last woman standing is ready, willing, and prepared to make critical decisions...quite literally ones that may be ones of life-or-death. Whether the person is the top Commander, a mid-level supervisor, or the newest, least experienced person on the team, we preach leadership.

Here are five steadfast rules that guide our leader development:

1. Determine the goal and strategy. Big picture thinking is vital. With teams, it's easy for a member to zone-in on one's specific task or responsibility. Our people must always understand the overall objective and the broad, concept-based, strategic plan. Obedience to lower priority tactical or task plans that violate more important strategic plans is nottolerated. You must be thinking at least two levels above your rank!

2. Communicate. In order for one to understand the goal and strategy, there must be effective communication between members. Information is most valuable when it's clear, concise, relevant, and timely. Different mediums of communication come together depending on the context, resources, and circumstance. Learning how to conduct briefings and issue "orders" is paramount to leadership.

3. Harmonize your team members' specialties. This highlights the age-old conflict between The Hedgehog and the Fox. Even though SWAT officers are often seen as specialists in policing, each member further specializes in an area, such as sniper, hostage negotiator, or medic. This specialization tends to build natural "silos," where unintended consequence are isolation and miscommunication. Leaders must take proactive measures to prevent silo-building and maximize healthy debate between different perspectives...AKA: Cross-pollinating.

4. Make the decision to let others make decisions. It's called empowerment. Leaders who work in dynamic, chaotic environments have to decentralize the decision-making authority. Our people must understand that information, situations, and solutions cannot possibly rise up and down the chain-of-command quickly enough to be timely or useful. Leadership requires making decisions as a subordinate...and also letting their own subordinates make them.

5.  Train. Educate. Mentor. Training is for skill proficiency. Education is for promoting wisdom, application, and understanding. Mentorship is for nurturing character, values, attitudes, and beliefs. All three of these development methods are required to prepare our leaders for the unknown obstacles they will face. Simulations, tabletop exercises, or realistic scenario drills are tools we  use to allow our people to challenge themselves in new roles, in a safe environment where failure is accepted...as long as we learn from our mistakes!

While these rules clearly apply to a SWAT team operationally in the field, the same concepts apply to administrative and logistical challenges. We need just as much leadership in budgeting, scheduling, training, project management, and a host of other functions. 

Police SWAT teams are agile, adaptive, complex organizations. By having a culture of leadership development, we maintain a solid depth chart of thinkers and problem-solvers.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Lou was on a multi-agency police SWAT team for 16+ years, until 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedIn


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