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Back to Archives | Back to January 2014 Contents 

A New Way of Leading for the Law Enforcement Supervisor: An Adaptive Leadership Case Study

Kendall Zoller, EdD, Sierra Training Associates, Foresthill, California; Anthony H. Normore, PhD, California State University Dominguez Hills, Los Angeles, California; and Scott McDonald, Captain, BS, Colorado State University Pueblo, Bakersfield, California, Police Department

There are critical issues in law enforcement today that were present five, ten, or even twenty years ago. Many law enforcement agencies have long-standing issues related to personnel, internal affairs, promotional processes, and community interactions, to name a few common problem areas. Each agency’s leadership knows best which issues seem eternally embedded in the agency and which have solutions. Despite this knowledge, these long-standing issues continue. With this in mind, the authors of this article assert that the existing knowledge, skill sets, abilities, capacities, values, principles, and beliefs are insufficient to resolve the current issues.

If current leadership models haven’t eliminated resolvable issues—or suggest that some issues are simply inherent to police agencies—then police leaders must decide whether new and innovative ways of thinking and leading are worth the effort. It is an effort aimed at developing a way of leading that offers processes to generate creative and effective resolutions to a police supervisor’s most challenging issues. Building on the leadership abilities of police supervisors can enhance and sustain their leading with a mindfulness that develops others and encourages a culture of adaptivity.

Using Adaptive Leadership to Complete Internal Affairs Investigations

A mid-sized California municipal police agency was facing an issue related to the time it took to complete Internal Affairs investigations. In this department, Internal Affairs (IA) investigations of Citizen Complaints generally took nearly a year to complete—the average completion time for cases was about 200 days. This length of time to complete cases was unacceptable to the leadership and, as a result, required further examination in order to determine the cause for the prolonged delay. The agency’s leadership needed a new approach to resolve the issue and reduce the length of IA investigations.

The Adaptive Leadership model, based on Heifetz and Linsky’s work from the Kennedy Center for Leadership, provides a structure for organizing thinking about change, as well as providing a means for navigating the implementation of a change process or plan.1 The basic structure of the Adaptive Leadership model consists of identification, diagnosis, the supervisor, the system, thinking politically, and deployment (see Table 1).2 Adaptive leadership is based on the premise that current knowledge, skills, and abilities in the system are insufficient to resolve current issues. In addition, the existing beliefs and values are not aligned with the new knowledge, skills, and abilities and must be changed to successfully navigate and end the current issue.

Table 1: Thinking, reflecting, and acting using the Adaptive Leadership model by Heifetz and Linsky (2002)
  • The investigators are doing best they can with what they have.
  • Completion of a case is acceptable as long as it is under one year.
  • The investigators are capable of increased productivity.
  • Completion of case within 60 days is acceptable.
  • Investigators
    • Case should be worked as a whole.
    • High-profile cases are priorities and worked until completed.
    • Low-profile case is back burnered.
    • Doing best I can with a heavy caseload.
    • Case should be worked in pieces.
    • Every case is the same priority.
    • No case is low priority.
    • Caseload is manageable and not overwhelming.
    • Process takes too long and discipline is ineffective.
    • It is drudgery to have the case hanging over my head.
  • Process can be timely and relevant.
  • Work is pleasant, nothing hanging over my head.
  • Public
    • Department is unresponsive to complaints.
    • Complaints have little or no resolution.
    • Department is responsive to complaints.
    • Complaints are resolved in a timely manner.

    By consciously implementing the Adaptive Leadership model beginning in 2010, the agency was able to reduce the IA processing time to fewer than 50 days in under four years (see Table 2).

    Identification and Diagnosis of the Issue

    The lengthy period of time for completing IA cases had been an ongoing issue in the department. While efforts had been made to reduce this time, they had not been successful over the long term, and the ongoing problem eroded confidence in the complaint process for the public and employees. The public felt the agency was unresponsive to their complaints and concerns; employees felt the process took too long and did not feel that discipline, if warranted, was appropriate when instituted months after an event. For years, the department’s Citizen Complaint policy had a maximum completion time of 30 days for all cases, which was rarely met, with an allowance for extensions if needed and authorized by the chief. However, the overall belief was that the investigators simply would not be able to meet the pre-set deadline. Extensions were routinely granted, and the policy was subsequently changed to reflect a one-year maximum completion time. In early 2010, a new IA commander implemented several technical solutions that reduced processing from more than 200 days to about 140 days. While an improvement, this was still considered an unsatisfactory length of time to the agency leadership.

    Several work avoidance patterns were apparent in the Internal Affairs Unit during this period of change. Cases were prioritized by their seriousness or the “interest” in the case. This resulted in investigators working on the higher profile cases until they were completed, with the rest being placed on the “back burner” or worked on sporadically. This had the potential for causing issues; in California, employees generally cannot be disciplined after one year from the time the complaint is discovered by the agency. The investigators felt overwhelmed and simply did as much as they could on a daily basis. There was clearly room for improvement in the process.

    A change in the values and beliefs of several different people within the department was needed. The most significant change of values and beliefs needed to occur among the supervisors and investigators in the IA Unit.

    Supervisor and Systems

    The values and beliefs of the managers in the unit and command staff in the department also needed to change. These changes would allow progress on the systems that could be implemented to improve efficiency and reduce total case investigation time. With the current budget crisis causing every aspect of the department to be examined for efficiency, appropriate staffing, and cost-value, it seemed to be a good time to look at how agency personnel were conducting business in the IA Unit (See table 3). With other sections of the agency making radical changes in their work systems, it would be more palatable for IA to make changes as well.

    Table 3: Current state and desired state for values and beliefs
    • Know the histories
    • Discuss and understand history may be an impediment to progress
    • Technical changes have been ineffective in creating sustainable change
    • Discuss and understand why intended change has not “stuck.” What does success look like?
    • Triggers
    • Values
    • Beliefs
    • Have clarity about the triggers that set you off in meetings. Have clarity about your values and beliefs and how they influence how you see others, understand others, and interact with others
    The System
    • Existing values and beliefs
    • Desired values and beliefs
    • Have clarity about what the agency’s current beliefs and values are. Identify the desired values and beliefs and determine the gaps between the existing and desired outcomes. Have conversations around these values and beliefs to guide people to the desired outcomes.
    Thinking Politically
    • The risks
    • The allies
    • The challengers
    • The losses
    • The gains
    • Reach out to various stakeholders and dialogue the issues, risks, and potential gains with them.
    • Discuss and identify the risks, gains, and potential obstacles to actual deployment of the plan.
    • Ripen the issue
    • Give the work back
    • Orchestrate disequilibrium

    Implementation of Adaptive Leadership

    In 2011, the agency’s Internal Affairs commander orchestrated conflict by returning the work to the supervisor and investigators in the IA Unit. This required a series of individual and small group meetings over a period of several months, which provided the opportunity to implement the strategies of the recently introduced concept of “Adaptive Leadership” as a platform to structure thinking around the work, values, beliefs, and principles. The IA commander met with the unit supervisor and they discussed the history of the issues, as well as the productive and unproductive behaviors of personnel assigned to the unit, including their own behaviors. Further, they identified potential reactions of personnel (both within the unit and within the rest of the department) to the intended change. Once these issues were identified, they discussed the idea of “turning up the heat” to drive the change process by causing discomfort through holding investigators and supervisors accountable for meeting stringent deadlines while increasing their threshold to multitask when working on several cases at the same time. The IA commander and supervisor agreed that the tension they would create within the unit would need to be done with positive intent and would need to be closely monitored.

    Once the IA commander and supervisor developed a framework for identifying and managing discomfort and tension during the process, they met with the rest of the unit (i.e., investigators and clerical staff) on several occasions. The purpose of the meetings was to seek their input on the history of the issue and ways in which that history could be overcome by changing the system so they could complete cases more efficiently and route them to command staff for review more quickly. Investigators and clerical staff discussed the historical process and brainstormed ways to streamline it in order to capitalize on improved efficiency. As a result of their input, several changes to the report writing and document collection process were implemented.

    Following the meetings, the overarching goal of completing all cases and routing them for review within 60 days of initial receipt was identified by the group and set as a standard. In order to reach this goal, the stringent timeline that had been set up in the department’s computerized case tracking system several years earlier would have to be diligently followed. The investigators and supervisors were advised about the need to use and monitor the tracking system since they would be held accountable for meeting the timeline, while still maintaining the quality and integrity of the investigation. A cultural shift within the unit, emphasized by leadership, occurred in which the completion of one case at a time was no longer considered acceptable. The only way to meet the timeline and accomplish the goal was to work multiple cases in pieces and compile the individual cases when they were fully completed.

    Thinking Politically

    The stakeholder groups connected to the IA process within the department and within the community were identified. The potential impact of the changes in the process were identified and discussed. Coupled by the articulation of benefits and risks of changes, a strategy was presented with a clear and concise focus on open communication about the goals and a realistic evaluation of the process by those involved.

    In addition to working with the IA Unit staff to change the values and culture within the unit, the IA commander and supervisor also used and further developed relationships with department command staff, employee labor groups, and department employees. The perceived need for improvement in the timeliness of the completion of IA cases was discussed, and all three groups enthusiastically supported the change. The benefits to each of these stakeholder groups were identified through dialogue and subsequently relayed to the IA Unit staff. Deployment of the Adaptive Leadership model brought about changes that resulted in positive feedback from the stakeholder groups.


    The issue of decreasing the time needed to complete IA cases was clearly ripe for change. IA staff was unhappy with the length of time it took to complete cases, as were the department command staff, accused officers and other employees, and members of the public who filed complaints. With other divisions of the department reevaluating how they manage workloads in the face of budget constraints, it was an appropriate time to identify case management improvements in the IA process.

    Once the improvement plan was developed utilizing the framework of the Adaptive Leadership model, the IA commander implemented the change process. The actual implementation of the changes belonged to the entire IA staff, with the primary responsibility for driving and leading the change process placed on the IA Unit supervisor. The supervisor led from a prominence of mindfulness wherein he was able to move between the “balcony” and the “dance floor” as needed to keep the change moving in a positive direction. Along with assistance from the IA commander, who led from a prominence of mindfulness while remaining on the balcony watching the dance floor, the supervisor orchestrated the disequilibrium that is a natural vortex flow of any significant change process.3

    The result of the deployment of the Adaptive Leadership model was a significant reduction in the amount of time needed to complete IA cases. Moreover, several key outcomes emerged: (1) the total number of active or open cases per investigator dropped significantly, (2) the backlog of open cases per investigator quickly disappeared, and (3) working relationships across the organizational hierarchy improved, fostering an environment of mutual respect and dignity across all levels.

    Reflections and Conclusions on Lessons Learned

    The Adaptive Leadership model was used to improve the process for completing Internal Affairs cases in one California municipal police department. Using this model as a thinking structure allowed the IA commander to engage in several important actions:

    • identify the historical issues involved and past solution attempts;
    • consider the values, beliefs, and culture of the Internal Affairs Unit and department, which were inhibiting change to a more productive model;
    • orchestrate and manage the conflict that arose as change was occurring;
    • think politically and develop allies in the change process; and
    • deploy a more productive way of doing business, which resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of time needed to complete a case.

    In conclusion, these authors have worked with agencies that are committed to learning and implementing a model of systemic change and leadership. The purpose of the model is to provide an alternative pathway that can build on and contribute to the level of efficiency and effectiveness of leading in an agency. Further, and as proven in this specific case, the model can be used to pave direction for developing technical solutions to persistent adaptive challenges. Adaptive Leadership provides a scaffold for diagnosing issues as either technical or adaptive and developing a variety of solutions that permeate multiple levels of the organization.

    The Adaptive Leadership model provides a way of looking at issues with a deliberate and conscious intent that is replicable and learnable. Supervisors can use the model as a tool kit for diagnosing key issues by looking at existing knowledge, skills, and abilities; identifying the gaps; and, most important, identifying the core values or beliefs that must change in order for the issue to be resolved. By incorporating this model, law enforcement supervisors can develop and implement solutions that previously might have been impossible or not yet known. ♦

    1Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002).

    Kendall Zoller, EdD, has consulted with California POST on leadership development, curriculum design, and the Supervisory Leadership Institute (SLI) as a facilitator and learning strategist since 2004.

    Anthony H. Normore, PhD, facilitates the learning of values-based leadership development and growth for the M.E.R.I.T Masters at the Correctional Facilities for Offenders Services Bureau/Education-Based Incarceration Unit, Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff’s Department.

    Scott McDonald has served as a California POST Supervisory Leadership Institute facilitator since 2006.

    Please cite as:

    Kendall Zoller, Anthony H. Normore, and Scott McDonald, “A New Way of Leading for the Law Enforcement Supervisor: An Adaptive Leadership Case Study,” The Police Chief 81 (January 2014): 44–47.



    From The Police Chief, vol. 81, no. 1, January 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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