Blue Line

How to identify future leaders

April 15, 2013  By Brent Snook

698 words – MR

Science BEAT

HEAD: How to identify future leaders

by Brent Snook

Like other professionals, police officers differ in career goals, aspirations and desire to help their organization succeed. Some are happy to remain at the rank of constable whereas others strive from day one to become chief. I was surprised to learn that there hasn’t been much scientific research aimed at identifying the differences between officers with contrasting career ambitions.

A recent study published in provides some awareness of these differences and offers suggestions on how police executives can encourage officers to strive for higher ranks. The authors of the article “Looking up: Explaining police promotional aspirations” argue that members motivated to achieve promotions will work harder and expend maximum effort – but what types of individuals are self-motivated to get promoted? Does gender, educational attainment, years of police experience, stress and/or job satisfaction influence career aspirations?

To answer some of these questions, Jacinta Gau, William Terrill and Eugene Paoline III collected data, including officer characteristics – gender, ethnicity, level of education obtained, years of police experience, presence of military experience and marital status – on 2,109 police officers from eight US agencies. They asked each to rate aspects of their work environment – stress, satisfaction, clarity on their job roles and responsibilities, attitudes towards top management, views about doing work unrelated to the crime-fighting stereotype about police work, views about how much police should do to maintain public order and attitudes about how much police should engage in community policing.

Gau and her colleagues also collected data on organizational characteristics – size and percentage of women and non-whites.

Participating officers were also asked to state how important upward mobility was to them – a term they called “promotion valence” – and to indicate their “expected rank at retirement.” The answers to these two questions allowed the researchers to gauge each officer’s promotional aspirations.

The researchers then used the 16 variables they collected to identify the factors most associated with promotional aspirations. Specifically, they used a regression analysis – a type of statistical procedure which identifies the variables that can forecast those who desire upward mobility and expect higher ranks at the end of their career.

The results showed that organizational and officer characteristics were most related to promotion valence. In particular, officers working in mid-sized agencies attached more significance to promotion than those in large agencies. The desire to get promoted was also greater for non-whites, men and those who had at least a bachelor’s degree. A similar pattern emerged with respect to expected rank at retirement. The variables most associated with expectations of having a higher rank upon retirement were non-white, men and those with at least a bachelor’s degree or some college education.

Such findings give police executives food for thought on the type of officers they need to motivate more. However, such an analysis does not reveal anything about the underlying reasons why the different characteristics matter. A regression analysis can show, for instance, that women were less interested than men in being promoted but not why they feel less inclined. Before any definitive actions can be taken to increase promotional aspirations, a study of why certain factors relate to differences in career aspirations is required.

So, how can police executives in Canada benefit from this research? It should lead upper-level police managers to think more about the sort of people in their organization that need more motivation (and ways to motivate them) – or to ensure those who are motivated are being groomed for promotion. The methodology used in the study provides a way to identify the types of people who may need motivation to attain professional achievements.

Of course, the reported findings need to be replicated in Canadian contexts before being acted upon. This sort of research also shows that discussions about the consequences of having every officer striving for promotions in an organization with a pyramid structure may be needed, along with discussions about the most effective way to structure police organizations.


Brent Snook, B.A., M.Sc., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Psychology branch of Memorial University in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Contact him at or 709 864-3101 for more information.

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