How corrections leadership can learn from Vince Lombardi

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” — Peter Drucker


As the above-cited quote confirms, even the renowned business management guru knew that leadership and management are two very different concepts. Leadership in any organization involves much more than senior personnel managing less senior personnel, and dealing with problems as they arise on a reactive basis. 

Rather, true leadership involves the rarer qualities of effective understanding, creativity, and inspiration, which then make the mere “managing” of personnel easier. Leadership also requires that those in superior positions set an example of professional conduct that other personnel in the organization can then use to model their own behavior. 

Unlike most private (and even public) sector jobs, leadership of law enforcement and corrections departments mandates doing the “right” things from a legal and even moral perspective. As officers sworn to uphold and enforce the law, superior law enforcement and corrections officers are required to always be well within the strict letter of the law regarding their professional conduct, in addition to avoiding even non-work situations or conduct that could bring their personal or professional integrity into disrepute. 

There is no question that law enforcement and corrections officers are held to a higher standard of personal and professional conduct than most civilian employees.
There is no question that law enforcement and corrections officers are held to a higher standard of personal and professional conduct than most civilian employees. (Photo/Pixabay)

The 21st Century American Workplace

There is no question that law enforcement and corrections officers are held to a higher standard of personal and professional conduct than most civilian employees. Accordingly, superior law enforcement and corrections officers should lead first and foremost by maintaining the highest level of personal and professional conduct and integrity.  

Part of that high professional standard of conduct required of superior law enforcement and corrections officers is the management of their departments and subordinate officers in a professional, respectful, and legal manner. The 21st century American workplace presents a far different reality than in the past, and law enforcement and corrections departments must adjust accordingly just like every other organization in this country. 

Most employees — including law enforcement and corrections officers — are aware of their legal right to a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and hostility under state and federal law, and are not as hesitant to enforce their rights as they used to be. 

In addition, through collective bargaining agreements and civil service rules, law enforcement and corrections officers have contractual rights to demand fair and equal enforcement of workplace rules and regulations that private sector, at-will employees do not enjoy. 

Consequently, superior law enforcement and corrections officers must be aware of, and manage subordinate officers in accordance with, the current legal requirements and cultural environment.   

Unfortunately, as an attorney who represents law enforcement and corrections officers, my clients often tell me that their superior officers harshly and repeatedly criticize subordinates in front of their fellow officers. They tell me that this type of public “chewing-out” is a tradition in law enforcement and corrections departments, and is often believed to be a necessary part of maintaining discipline in a dangerous profession. It is also a result of the quasi-military rank structure of law enforcement and corrections departments, and the longstanding military adage of something “running downhill.” 

Power comes with superior rank and many superior officers believe that part of their authority is the right and need to “call-out” subordinate officers whose workplace conduct or performance is lacking in front of their fellow officers.

Heed the Words of Vince Lombardi

However, superior law enforcement and corrections officers should consider the advice of a Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi, who famously said: “Praise in public, criticize in private.” If someone as old-school hard as Vince Lombardi understood that public criticism runs contrary to maximized performance and motivation even in tough NFL football players, then there is no reason why superior law enforcement and corrections officers in the 21st century should not follow his sound advice. Even if the criticism is objectively reasonable and justified, and intended as constructive, it is important for superior officers to understand the potential negative collateral effect that harshly expressed criticism can have on a subordinate officer if done in front of his or her fellow officers.

The American workplace is now a far more diverse environment with regard to race and gender. This is a positive development for the law enforcement and corrections professions, and one which will continue to bring them in line with the rest of the public and private employment sectors. Therefore, it is important that superior law enforcement and corrections officers be aware of, and sensitive to, the reality that management of subordinate officers now requires a different approach and style. This can only be achieved through diversity and management training, which should now be mandatory for all superior law enforcement and corrections officers.  

Whether right or wrong, the majority of younger law enforcement and corrections officers today — like most Americans — have been raised in far more sensitive and tolerant family, school and workplace environments than in past generations. Many have never been subjected to even sharp verbal criticism by any authority figures in their lives, nonetheless corporal punishment. They simply do not know how to get “chewed-out” in front of their fellow officers and then respond positively. Rather, their response is often decreased motivation and workplace performance, which does not benefit the subject officer, their fellow officers or the environment in their department. Therefore, professional, discreet, and constructive criticism given by a superior officer in private will achieve better results and produce better workplace conduct and performance from subordinate officers than any old-school chew-out.      

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