10 leadership lessons for corrections from the military

Your subordinates will look to you for answers in the moment of truth. Will you be ready for them?

By Mike Wood, C1 Contributor

There’s a lot of crossover between the military and law enforcement. The paramilitary nature of law enforcement agencies guarantees a lot of similarities between the professions, and the public service missions of these two cultures ensure a natural tie as well.

Despite the chirping from the rafters about things like “police militarization,” there’s a lot law enforcement officers can learn and borrow from their brothers and sisters in the military. This is especially true in the area of leadership, and I’d like to share some leadership lessons from my own military career that might be helpful to you as a leader in your department and community.

A good leader works harder than his troops. (Photo/Defense.gov)
A good leader works harder than his troops. (Photo/Defense.gov)


In high stakes professions, where the difference between life and death depends on the smallest of details, trust between teammates is critical. Your peers and subordinates need to know they can depend on you, and that your word is good. They need to know that when you tell them you took care of something, it was done properly. They need to trust the information you provide them. They need to know that you’ll keep a promise. All of this trust can be instantly destroyed with a lie, a deception, or a failure to do what you said you would. Therefore, it’s imperative to be honest, tell the truth, keep your word, and always do the right thing, even if it’s not the easy thing to do.


A good leader works harder than his troops. He’s the first to show, and the last to leave. He works longer hours, takes fewer breaks, and spends more effort, because he knows that in the moment of truth, his subordinates will look to him for answers, and he’d better have them. Being a leader is an honor, but it’s also a responsibility, and that responsibility demands work, effort and commitment. If you’re going to be the kind of leader worthy of your troops’ respect and loyalty, you’ve got to earn it – don’t be afraid to get dirty and sweaty.


Your people are your most valuable asset. Without them, the mission doesn’t get done. A good leader constantly monitors the welfare, training and readiness of his troops, and does everything he can to assist, ready and safeguard them. The nature of military and law enforcement missions dictates that sometimes we’ll have to send our people into harm’s way, but a true leader won’t do it lightly. It’s the responsibility of a leader to ensure his troops are prepared and equipped to do the mission, and are properly led. A leader doesn’t eat until his troops are fed, and doesn’t sleep until they’ve been taken care of. He creates opportunities for growth, models desirable behaviors and provides guidance to help his people improve themselves. He takes care of their needs, defends them from external attack, and never forgets that they are the most essential element of mission success.


A good leader sets the example, and leads from the front. He doesn’t ask anything of his troops that he is unwilling or unable to give himself. The motto at the United States Army Infantry School is “Follow Me,” which sums up the expectation nicely. If your troops are looking around for you, they’d better find you out front.


A good leader must be educated, informed and confident, but never too proud to accept feedback and information from those around him. The most junior member of your organization might be the one that holds the kernel of information you most desperately need to know. It’s your job as a leader to create an atmosphere where he feels empowered and encouraged to share it with you. There’s a two-way flow of information in effective organizations, and it’s your job to create and protect this kind of culture as a leader. Ask questions, and truly listen to the answers. Evaluate feedback with an open mind. A good leader recognizes he doesn’t know everything, and is skilled at gathering information from people around him who are smarter or better informed on a subject.


The mark of a good person is how they treat people who can do nothing for them. Be courteous and professional to everyone around you. Treat them with dignity, regardless of their status or rank. A leader cannot demand respect from others, if he’s not respectful to others.


Sometimes organizations encourage people to enhance their resume with accomplishments that have no bearing on the mission. They’ll encourage “career broadening” or suggest participation in various reindeer games as a way to enhance your chances for promotion. Don’t get caught in this trap. The best way for you to advance to higher levels in your organization is to demonstrate your excellence at your assigned duties. If you know and do your job better than anyone else, people around you will notice. On occasion, organizational politics may prevent you from climbing the ladder, but your peers will recognize your ability and expertise. Sometimes the best leaders in an organization are the informal ones, who don’t have stars or bars on their collar, or stripes on their sleeves. Everyone knows who these people are, because they make things run. When the mission is difficult, they’re the ones people depend on. Strive to be one of these people – one of the trusted experts – and let the rest take care of itself. When you do promote, people around you will know it’s because you earned it, and you’re ready for the responsibility, not because you played the game.


The best leaders are students of their own history. You’re not the first one to encounter a given problem, so learn what worked and what didn’t in the past. A good leader will learn from the mistakes of his predecessors, so he won’t make them himself, and he will also learn to build on their successes. Sometimes, the answer to a future problem can be found in the rear view mirror.


A good leader is able to control his emotions and maintain his calm in the midst of chaos. We’re all human, and we all get scared, angry or frustrated at times, but a good leader doesn’t allow these emotions to rule his everyday behavior. A good leader controls his emotions, and models the presence, control and demeanor he wants his subordinates to demonstrate. A leader who maintains his composure is a positive influence on those around him, and inspires confidence in his troops. A panic-stricken, angry, or petulant leader inspires chaos and provokes the same kind of reaction in his people. Kipling said it best: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…you’ll be a Man, my son.” Your FTO taught you the same thing – always sound cool on the radio. That’s good advice to remember, as a police leader.


Leadership is stressful, and being a police leader is even more stressful. Don’t underestimate the power of humor to defuse a tense situation, ease the concerns of your people and demonstrate your humanity. Laugh at yourself and your mistakes. Laugh at funny situations. Be friendly and playful when appropriate. These things put people at ease, relieve stress, foster stronger ties with your teammates and enhance two-way communication. Leadership is a serious business, and there’s no room for you to be the class clown, but your ability to laugh and smile can be an extremely positive influence on your people and your organization, so lighten up, Francis.


There’s a lot more to say about this subject, but this is a good enough start for now. I’ll be interested to hear from the PoliceOne audience about the leadership lessons you learned during your military service in the comments below. I know there’s a lot of good experience out there, and I hope you’ll share yours with all of us.

About the author
Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis, the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. The book is available in paper and electronic formats through Amazon.comBarnesandNoble.com, Apple ITunes and gundigeststore.com. Please visit the official website for this book at www.newhallshooting.com for more information.

Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the U.S. Army Airborne School, and a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. Mike retired as a Command Pilot, with more than 4,500 hours in aircraft ranging from fighters to tankers, and flew more than 550 combat hours over Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s the recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal (3), Air Medal (5), and Aerial Achievement Medal (3), and was recognized as the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command Flying Instructor of the Year in 2000.

Mike is a lifelong shooter, a student of self-defense, an active firearms instructor with certifications from the National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division, and a featured speaker for law enforcement agencies and associations. He is the Senior Editor at RevolverGuy.com, and was a contributor at American Cop Magazine and Police Marksman Magazine. Mike enjoys sharing and applying the lessons from his training, military and aviation experience with the law enforcement community, and is grateful for all that he has learned from them in return. Mike is a member of the PoliceOne Editorial Advisory Board.


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