The Police Chief, the Professional Voice of Law Enforcement
Advanced Search
September 2016HomeSite MapContact UsFAQsSubscribe/Renew/UpdateIACP

Current Issue
Search Archives
Web-Only Articles
About Police Chief
Law Enforcement Jobs
buyers Your Oppinion

Back to Archives | Back to November 2012 Contents 

The Police Chief as Coach: Analogies between Sports and Effective Police Leadership

By Thomas J. Jurkanin, PhD,

n the fall of every year, college football captures national attention. For all college football fans that catch the fever, there is nothing more exciting than waking up on Saturday morning, checking the television schedule, and making plans to watch one’s favorite team—and, for the diehard fan, to follow as many games as possible. What is the attraction? Why do we watch? Why do we care? What is the significance of sports?

We care because sports are an analogy for life. The collective athletic talent displayed by young people reminds us of the excellence of youth in their prime. While some may argue that the game is irrelevant, it is indisputable that the young men and women who play the game represent the best of today and the promise of tomorrow. They are prepared at the highest levels of mental and physical conditioning to gain victory.

Each athlete and every team is guided and coached to attain peak performance and to do so while maintaining exemplary personal character and integrity. The London 2012 Olympic Games captured the world’s attention, as viewers paused to see the finest female and male athletes in the world compete, each with their own inspiring story of dedication and excellence. Some captured the gold, but most did not; yet most competed to the best of their abilities on the day of the event, after years of preparation, practice, and conditioning. Many competed in the face of adversity, with injury and pain. And each athlete inspired those of us who gave witness to their gallant efforts.

Becoming a Coach

This article promotes the theorem that the police chief must first and foremost be a coach. Successful coaches engender and earn a healthy level of respect from those they lead, the media, and the community; in short, they must be perceived as being effective leaders before they are able to lead.

In the policing profession, it is widely recognized that the average tenure of a chief is short—approximately three years.1 Many factors might help to explain the short tenure of police chiefs, but failure to gain the respect of the officers and the wider community is most often a significant contributing factor.

In seeking to establish respected leadership status, police chiefs must learn to take less of their share of the credit for accomplishments and instead benevolently acknowledge the good efforts of the people who work for them, while concurrently accepting more than their share of the blame when things go wrong. As with any leadership position, police chiefs must care about those who work for them. They must become mentors. They must show continuing support for their officers while cultivating their collective talents and downplaying any inclination to embrace personal ego or self-aggrandizement. In short, good leaders must know when to take the stage and when to stand in the shadows. When the police chief’s administration is based upon building trust and adhering to the ethos of exemplary personal character, officers take quick notice. They will readily recognize that their leader is not out for personal gain and, as importantly, that the chief is focused on what is in the best interest of the police organization as a whole.

So what is a coach? Renowned author and business coaching expert Myles Downey defines coaching as, “The art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another.”2 A coach must teach skills while concurrently inspiring the players, individually and collectively, to utilize their talents and abilities at the highest level to achieve success.

Having worked with police chiefs for 38 years and having witnessed effective leadership in action, the author of this article has gained an understanding of the dynamics of success. While national data provide evidence that the average tenure of police chiefs is limited, there are many chiefs who have remained as chief at a single department for decades. What is their secret? Without exception, all were and are good coaches. Being an effective coach and a mentor is an unselfish endeavor. In accepting the role of coach, one puts the interests of the people they lead first and in the process makes a commitment to mentor them, to influence their lives and their careers—in short, to make them better.

There are a number of important links between coaching and law enforcement that chiefs must understand. Coaches and chiefs can learn much from the great Vince Lombardi, who once said, “Football is like life. It teaches work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness, and respect for authority.”3

Coaches must subjugate themselves in part to a secondary role. The goal is to let the players shine, to persuade and allow them to accentuate their talents and accomplishments, and to promote their player talents to the maximum extent. As John Wooden once said, “Leadership is the ability to get individuals to work together for a common good and the best possible results while at the same time letting them know that they did it themselves.”4

Recruitment and Selection

The creation of a successful team is about blending the right talent, at every position, to achieve organizational success. Sport teams invest a considerable amount of time scouting potential recruits who will ultimately contribute meaningfully by way of their talents. While police agencies invest time and money in recruiting prospective officers, they are not as focused—or at least not to the same level—as sport recruiters. Police agency recruitment has historically been hampered by the creation of road blocks that may cause otherwise talented candidates to seek other professional opportunities. The fact that the hiring process, from application to hire or rejection, can often take eight months or more is one example of a hindrance. Police agencies must rethink their recruitment and selection processes to proactively seek out quality candidates, to encourage them to apply, to nurture them through the review process, and to provide them with incentives based on their potential contributions to a department. In short, police agencies, like sport teams, must proactively identify the best person for each position. As the coach Wooden once stated, “I’d rather have a lot of talent and a little experience than a lot of experience and a little talent.”5


In policing, as in sports, teamwork is a significant component of success. The team must perform in concert—together as one. The day-to-day actions of the team must be consistent and precise in execution. All players must understand the big picture, their particular roles, the game plan, how they are expected to execute the plan—and, perhaps most importantly, how all involved will be held accountable. In sports, a missed assignment can result in lost points and a potential defeat. In policing, a missed assignment can result in injury or death. Inculcating teamwork in policing and within a department is impossible without the active leading role of the chief executive officer. As Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”6 Michael Jordan got it right when he stated, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”7


Integrity and ethics are the cornerstones of sportsmanship, whether one wins or loses. Similarly, ethics is central to establishing trust in the U.S. system of justice. Public servants must never waiver from their commitments to abide by the law and honor the strict ethical obligation of their offices. They must serve the public good in an honorable manner.

An officer’s personal ideologies, prejudices, and philosophical leanings must be held in abeyance at all times. Many public servants confuse the advantage of public office with personal privilege. The test of ethics is not an obstacle for the vast majority of public servants. Yet the actions of one or more unethical officers effectively discredit all professionals who routinely honor their ethical standards day in and day out. A news story about the actions of one rogue cop—appearing on the Internet, within minutes, and distributed virally—diminishes the actions and the honorable behaviors of hundreds of thousands of good and honest officers. For the honorable officers who conscientiously adhere to their code of ethics, there is nothing more disturbing than a corrupt cop within their ranks. As Warren Buffet once said, “In looking for people to hire, you should look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”8 As a leader and a coach, the police chief must set the standard and the tone regarding exemplary ethical conduct and, importantly, must lead by example.

Winning and Losing

A common element in the downfall of police officers and other criminal justice professionals is that too often they expect to win at any cost. In doing so, they sometimes are willing to manipulate the system to ensure a win. This phenomenon is referred to as noble cause corruption.

In sports, the objective is to prepare to win and avoid defeat. However, the inconvertible fact of life is that no matter the level of effort given or the level of talent displayed, a win is never guaranteed. Professional baseball provides a good example. The 2011 World Champion Saint Louis Cardinals finished the regular season with 90 victories and 72 losses—a winning percentage of 55.6 percent. Even with this record, they played the game every day, celebrating the victories and enduring the losses, and in the end became champions. Wins and losses in baseball provide a poignant analogy to wins and losses in policing. Police often make good cases, but for a variety of reasons, the offender may not be punished. Losses and failures cannot deter the police from the task at hand and from seeking the larger goal of playing the so-called game fairly, with the hope of triumphing in the end.

In sports as in life, the question becomes “winning at what cost?” One has only to examine the recent tragic case of the Pennsylvania State University to witness and understand the fallibility of people in leadership roles who chose not to lead ethically. Criminal justice professionals, committed to ethical conduct, cannot allow for ethical shortcuts or lapses; they must live within the law and abide the law at all times. Edwin DeLattre puts this concept in perspective:

People who succeed can fail at success. A basketball player is a considerable success, but not if the wealth and status of stardom leads to drugs and self-destruction. Similarly, those who become police officers in a department with serious recruiting and training standards have achieved a significant success. When they abuse authority and power, however, and do not live up to the trust of their office, they fail at success. Success can destroy a person whose character is not up to it.9

The message is clear: Police officers and police organizations as a whole must learn how to win and lose with character. Fortunately, most officers do not allow the frustration of losing to influence their character and choose to abide by their ethical standards.

Training, Execution, and Safety

How well do we prepare police officers in the United States? Police officers receive inadequate training when compared to other professionals. Much is expected of police officers, but their basic training program is consistent only with trades, not with professions. The trend has not changed much in the last four decades. While more and more officers enter the profession with four-year college degrees, a four-year degree is not required by the majority of departments. Even so, police officers deal with the most difficult of human problems.

Police officers must employ exceptional skill related to communication, human psychology, and community dynamics. The level of knowledge, skill, and expertise required of police officers is becoming ever more evident. Importantly, computer technology, crime analysis, DNA analysis, closed-circuit television surveillance, and other scientific advances are revolutionizing police response to crime. Recruitment in the future must be based upon knowledge and skill and, increasingly, on computer and scientific ingenuity.

It is a well-understood tenet in football that teams most often win or lose based upon simple execution—blocking, tackling, timing, and successfully carrying out their assignments. How does the sports analogy apply to policing when it comes to training, execution, and safety? As coaches and mentors, police chiefs must look at the big picture, lead their officers, and set agendas for success. As coaches, chiefs must be concerned with their players (officers); train them to perform on the job; and make sure that they execute properly so they may achieve their mission, avoid injury in the process, and ensure that they remain skillfully prepared to protect the public. It is all about the basics.

Unfortunately, many of the police officers who are injured or killed in the line of duty are at risk because they became complacent or forgot the basics. This is a sobering fact, understood by the law enforcement community.

Training plays a significant role. A police officer who comes to a department and spends five or ten years there might become complacent if continuous training is not part of the program. In-service training reminds officers that there are new techniques and strategies to be employed; that the field of policing is ever changing; that years on the force can contribute to cynicism and complacency; and that it is possible for a once ethical and professional officer to become unethical or corrupt. Training is an excellent method for reminding experienced officers of the basics and, in the process, for providing a forum for motivating officers by reminding them of the critical role they occupy in protecting citizens and communities in a lawful society.

Developing a Community of Support

An effective coach understands the importance of getting athletes, the student body, families, and communities involved in the program. Friday Night Lights, the television show that highlighted an exemplary Texas high school football program, is an excellent example of how good coaches develop the community as a centerpiece of the team’s dedication to excellence, to the community, and to winning. Local sport teams often become a source of pride for the community.

Police chiefs must understand this dynamic. They have the same opportunity as the high school coach to build community pride, foster community spirit, and engender community support for their teams of officers.

Achieving Effective Leadership

A common factor among football coaches and police chiefs is their short tenures. They either win or lose, are evaluated over a period of a few years, and are subsequently retained and fired. While the average tenure of a police chief is three years, football coaches may have five years to prove themselves. The bottom line is that leaders in sports and in policing are given very little time to make a difference, to implement effective organizational change, and to establish leadership. This short tenure is problematic for the organization as stability suffers. How can a coach or a police chief create a sustained program of improvement when constantly under threat of being fired?

Establishing effective leadership from day one is the answer. However, the dynamics of doing so are not so simple. This article underscores one of the key components to achieving effective leadership—that is, becoming a coach first. If police chiefs embrace their roles as coaches and all the components, as delineated in this article, that the role requires, then they will lay a solid foundation for effective leadership. In the end, coaches and police chiefs alike must not succumb to the temptation of becoming consumed by issues of tenure or legacy. Conversely, they must be most concerned about the opportunities and the challenges that they are presented and make the most of both. Success and legacy will follow. ♦


1Wendy Kaminer, “Crime and Community,” The Atlantic Monthly 273, no. 5 (May 1994): 111-120; Jill Leovy, “Little Job Security in Being a Police Chief,” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2002, (accessed August 23, 2012).
2Myles Downey, Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coaches’ Coach (New York: Texere, 2003), 21.
3“Quotations: Sportsmanship,” Josephson Institute, (accessed August 22, 2012).
4John Wooden and Steve Jamison, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and off the Court (Lincolnwood, Ill.: Contemporary Books, 1997), 112.
5Ibid., 121.
6“The Best Teamwork Quotes,” Board of Wisdom, (accessed August 22, 2012).
7“Superhero Basketball Quotes: Michael Jordan Quotes,” Basketball Plays and Tips, (accessed August 22, 2012).
8“Warren Buffet Quotes,” Wannapreneur, (accessed August 22, 2012).
9Edwin J. Delattre, Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing, 5th ed. (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 2011), 111.

Please cite as:

Thomas J. Jurkanin, "The Police Chief as Coach: Analogies between Sports and Effective Police Leadership," The Police Chief 79 (November 2012): 24–26.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. , November 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

The official publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The online version of the Police Chief Magazine is possible through a grant from the IACP Foundation. To learn more about the IACP Foundation, click here.

All contents Copyright © 2003 - International Association of Chiefs of Police. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright and Trademark Notice | Member and Non-Member Supplied Information | Links Policy

44 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA USA 22314 phone: 703.836.6767 or 1.800.THE IACP fax: 703.836.4543

Created by Matrix Group International, Inc.®