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Following the leader: front‐line narratives on police leadership

Michael Rowe (Department of Criminology, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 1 October 2006




The purpose of this article is to consider junior officers' attitudes towards those in senior positions, and the implications that this has for current debates on improving police leadership.


An ethnographic study of policing underpins the article and theoretically the notion of police culture is used to consider the various ways in which frontline police officers are able to resist or circumvent reforms to which they do not subscribe.


The article finds that frontline officers place great value on being led by senior officers who have considerable direct experience of street level policework. Those officers who have rapidly climbed the promotion ladder, without “serving their time” on the streets, are regarded with some suspicion.

Research limitations/implications

Further analysis of the attitudes of junior officers towards their senior colleagues would be useful, to build on this study to consider the extent to which the attitudes identified here apply to various roles completed by senior officers.

Practical implications

The current agenda of police reform emphasises the benefits to be had from employing leaders who are from outside the British police service. While the suspicion with which such individuals are likely to be greeted by frontline staff is not, in itself, reason to reject such proposals it does indicate that efforts need to be made to bridge the “credibility gap” that seems likely to surround them. The article identifies a number of situations in which junior police officers did not accept the legitimacy of requests made by those of senior rank. It is not argued that leaders and managers were necessarily betraying ignorance of the realities of police work or that they were misguided. However, it is argued that given the continuing high levels of discretion available to police officers in terms of how they interpret their role and operationalise their diverse duties it is important for proponents of police reform to understand the cultural factors that, in part, will determine the ways in which frontline officers will respond to change.


The article presents valuable and original insight into a neglected aspect of debates on police leadership; namely, the perspectives of those who are “followers”. Since British policing has continued to eschew officer‐level entry, the issues raised are vitally important to those seeking to transform police leadership by introducing those from outside the service to senior positions.



Rowe, M. (2006), "Following the leader: front‐line narratives on police leadership", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 29 No. 4, pp. 757-767.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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