Law Enforcement Leadership: Lessons from Jesus


There is an old adage that says, “Great leaders are born, not made.” While this may be a famous saying, in a cursory survey of the adage on Google, I found almost universally that no one with any experience in training leaders believes it. It is apparent that Jesus—messiah, servant, prophet, and sage from Nazareth—did not believe it either. I found that discovery refreshing. I also believe that becoming a leader is a process that involves many principles, with Jesus modeling that process in a way that provides us with our best example to follow.

Jesus understood that great leaders are not born, they are raised. We need only look at some of the men that Jesus called and trained to be leaders to recognize this: Peter, a brash fisherman with a coward’s streak; Matthew, a puppet of imperial Rome who swindled his own people out of their substance to pay Roman taxes; Thomas, a doubter; Nathanael, a dreamer under the fig tree, or any of the others. They all had their shortcomings.

In truth, all of the apostles (except the beloved John) forsook Jesus out of fear the night before His passion. Certainly, when we consider any of the great leaders in history in comparison, we can say that these followers of Jesus did not exactly inspire the confidence that they would become leaders at all, let alone great leaders. But Jesus was not looking for leaders necessarily, He was looking for potential, men who were moldable and teachable and could be taught to be leaders. If they were willing to be pliable bricks of clay, Jesus would do the rest.

Having had the benefit of being a trainer for a sheriff’s department, I know from experience that training staff—either leaders or foot-soldiers—requires orientation to the mission of the sheriff’s office, classroom instruction as to how that mission is accomplished, field training in the use of that knowledge in the company of a senior officer, and a probationary period of observation while the new officer applies the skills he has learned on his own.

But even before someone is placed into the position of being trained, there is a process in place that helps the department identify those individuals who have the greatest potential to succeed in helping the department accomplish its mission. Normally the most desirable of candidates are the raw material, those willing to be shaped according to the dictates of the department, and have no agenda or ideas of their own.

Law enforcement organizations want team players, not rogue warriors. To evaluate the potential of an applicant requires interviewing them and asking them questions about their goals, their judgment, and their character. The entire process is meant to weed out the undesirables, leaving only those who have the best chance for success and, more importantly, will perform the best under the most difficult of circumstances for the department, and in the way that department policy requires it to be done.

When those individuals are identified, the training process can be intense. Classroom instruction can be anywhere from one week to eighteen weeks. The head knowledge is then put to the test in field training, normally from two to four weeks, under the supervision of a senior officer, until certain tasks and basic competencies are demonstrated. Once this is completed, the officer is put to work on his own, under intense supervision for a six month probation period.

The goal at the end of training and probation is to have an officer who looks, talks, and acts in a manner that reflects positively upon the department, the profession, and the community he represents. To be a credible trainer or mentor in the sheriff’s department, you must yourself exemplify those things you are trying to teach if your efforts and teachings are going to be heeded. The mentor must have an impeccable reputation and a willingness to invest his time and experience into other officers. Departmental leaders must embrace and apply this truth as well.

Jesus also applied a process to developing the apostles into leaders. Being omniscient, Jesus obviously had no need for a lengthy application and evaluation process; He knew the nature of all men (John 2:24-25). But Jesus recognized potential. The qualities Jesus sought in the twelve apostles may have surprised some people; He did not select charismatic or physically striking men, but He knew what He needed to accomplish the mission of his ministry to the world. He knew these men thoroughly—the good and the bad—and chose those who could accomplish the work, weaving together the good and bad traits to accomplish what He would ask them to do.

When Jesus called Matthew (Lk. 5:27-32), He called a man who consorted with sinners; someone who understood too well the destructiveness of sin. When he called Simon Peter, He told him He would make him a fisher of men; Simon Peter would know that fishing was work and it would not be an easy job. But fishing for men was so much more important and Peter possessed the drive and understanding to apply the hard labor. Simon the Zealot was a fighter, but Jesus called him; the Kingdom of God would need to overthrow this present world, perhaps not with carnal weapons, but with the same zeal and determination as a revolutionary.

Jesus invested significant time in those men He selected to lead; molding men into leaders takes considerable time and energy. The strong leader needs to be a committed teacher, a motivator, and an effective communicator. Jesus may have been all of these things but without injecting His personal touch into their individual lives, the men He chose would not have been successful.

This personal touch, however, required some honesty. Jesus was not vague or deceptive about His expectations of them, what He wanted to accomplish, or what the cost would be. Walking with Him was going to mean sacrifices (Luke 9:23). But Jesus led by His example; He was not asking of them anything He was not prepared to do Himself (John 10:11). Once Jesus identified His protégés, and exhibited commitment to their growth by investing His time and energy into their lives, He provided many opportunities to teach and instruct them.

This is one of the great strengths of His ministry and it is also a great strength for any law enforcement leader. Of course, there are those well-known moments in the scriptures where Jesus teaches: the Sermon on the Mount, the Olivet Discourse, or sharing His many parables. Setting those aside, however, does not leave us without examples of Jesus teaching on other, quieter occasions–those less obvious moments when Jesus also taught the disciples important life lessons, moments when seemingly ordinary circumstances just “happened.”

I call these “teaching moments.” They are very powerful. The two that I am most drawn to are the widow and her two mites in Luke 21:1-4 and the anointing of Jesus feet in Matt 26:6-13. With the widow, a seemingly insignificant event, observing attendees to the temple leaving their offerings, turned into the teaching of a great truth about sacrificial giving. With the anointing of Jesus’ feet, that which was considered a nuisance and a waste of money was used by Jesus to teach on the depths of forgiveness, gratitude, and faith. Jesus’ mentoring did not stop in the “classroom.” He expected the apostles to apply the truths He had taught them in the “lab” of the real world.

Jesus provided the apostles supervised opportunities to grow as leaders, delegating to them responsibilities that they would then be accountable for. Knowing that leaders learn best by experience—positive or negative, success and failure—Jesus ensured the apostles had opportunities to apply what He had taught them. When He sent them out by twos in Luke 9:1-5, He prepared them for success and failure and how to respond to both. There is a difference between “book smarts” and “technical smarts.” Knowledge gained takes on new importance and relevance when applied technically to real life situations. Jesus knew the apostles would need this if they were going to advance His mission after He was gone.

After the ascension, the apostles realized the culmination of this mentoring process, that of the “letting go” of those who have been taught, receiving from Jesus the trust He placed in them to advance His gospel once He was gone. This goes hand in hand with supervised training. As a leader, Jesus may have given the apostles the “book smarts” and some “technical smarts” in the safety of a structured setting, but real experience only comes from doing it yourself. Jesus was now entrusting them to carry on without Him

Reproducing in our law enforcement leadership roles the mentoring model of Jesus requires us to assume the same priorities that He did. We must identify those with potential for leadership and, just as important, possess the unique qualities fitted to the task. Equipping individuals for leadership requires a time investment and personal commitment to their growth. This requires a clear communication and demonstration of the mission they will be asked to aid and carry on. If they are to be successful, they have to be taught and given the opportunity to apply that knowledge to real world situations with the necessary guidance.

Finally, they must be given the opportunity to be leaders themselves, so that they may add to their knowledge base what they have experienced and learned on their own, so that they may pass these to the next generation of leaders. Jesus exemplified these principles and it is the only logical model for developing leaders. Jesus, that great and humble servant, left a good example for a servant’s profession. Leaders are made, not born; it just takes a little effort.

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