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Sara Thornton, Chief Constable, Thames Valley Police

Thames Valley police officers at the 2014 Henley Regatta

(c) Claire Brand, Thames Valley Police

As head of the largest non-metropolitan police force in the UK, Sara Thornton CBE knows all about the importance of leading with conviction and purpose, but says one thing must come above all else.

Sara Thornton

Sara Thornton

People should be at the heart of your thinking. I think one of the keys to good leadership is understanding and empathising with the people you lead. When I make a decision I take time to look at the operational process and how it impacts on people, on individuals. Particularly if you’re making changes, never forget what really matters – that people are at the heart of that change. Check what effect it’s having on them. I went to single-sex school where inevitably some girls took charge and made the “leadership” decisions, partly because there weren’t any boys who might traditionally have made them. But I was conscious of not wanting to stand out, and that made me very political and empathetic – aware and respectful of other points of view.

So pull, don’t push. If you’re developing a project, or trying to introduce or change something, you can push people into doing it – but you can only push them for a short time. By contrast, if you pull people along, they’ll stay with you. Every organisation is all about the people – more than 85 per cent of our force budget at Thames Valley is for people. And our staff are not building widgets; there’s no one set way to do the job we do and two people can do that job in entirely different ways, with entirely different results. It’s imperative that I understand them and give them the support to provide the best service they can. Motivation is the key.

I like to keep connected with my team. In one of my previous roles my superior never emailed, never really communicated, and when he did it was all very formal. I learned by that the importance of keeping up a dialogue with those around you – it makes for constructive teamwork.

I’m very conscious of where people are coming from. I was the oldest of three siblings so I suppose I had a tendency to take charge – or be bossy, my mum would call it. She was always making sure I reined myself in and I became acutely aware of trying to do that. In the groups of friends I had as a child I would want to be the one who designed the games, but if anything I actually pulled my punches because I was always conscious of my mother’s warnings not to show off.

One of my early mentors was one of the first woman chief constables. She started when women police were separate from the men. I learned so much from her about resilience and perseverance to get where you want to be.

Have a purpose in everything you do. Another mentor taught me that if you go to a meeting, a conference, make a speech, whatever – always be purposeful. Don’t just go for the sake of going, but learn from it, use it as an opportunity to meet people and find out what the issues are. That’s how you keep learning – being a leader is about your own growth and development as much as anyone else’s. There was another mentor who taught me the value of networking. He got things done by knowing people, building relationships with them and sharing information and perspectives. As I have progressed to more senior positions I have found that external networks are probably more important than internal ones.

Deal with difficult people issues right at the beginning: it’s important in terms of making your mark early on by exercising your judgment and then having the courage of your convictions. When I became chief my first job was to choose a deputy. I didn’t select the most experienced and long-serving candidate, whom everyone expected to get the job, but the one I thought the most competent. I was very new and everybody said I’d made the wrong decision because I hadn’t done the “right and proper thing”. It made for a rocky first couple of weeks and I did speak to senior colleagues about it, but they said: “Just hold steady”. And I did, and my candidate proved to be an outstanding deputy, which ultimately won people round. If you believe in something, don’t be intimidated by those who disagree. Don’t be frightened to make the right decision.