Trending Topics

Leadership is not a skill to be mastered

Leadership is not a destination but a journey, requiring effective communication, self-reflection, and lifelong learning in the ever-changing field of corrections

Stack of books with leadership attributes

At no point in our careers can we afford to declare mastery over leadership; it is a continuous journey of improvement and adaptation.

stevanovicigor/Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Adam Sowden

Read any biography, autobiography, tall tale, or legend about a great leader, and you’ll notice a common theme: they led their people through significant struggles and emerged triumphant. Even in the darkest moments, their principles shone brightly, inspiring others to achieve similar greatness.

This simplicity applies to nearly all great leaders. Whether it’s the solid morals of Generals George C. Marshall and Colin Powell, the strategic prowess of Bill Belichick, or the steadfast drive of Winston Churchill, the fundamental principles remain the same: adhere to your values and guide your people through the toughest challenges. However, this raises a question: what do leaders do when the struggle seems endless?

The corrections environment is constantly changing, yet one of the most profound truths we must acknowledge as leaders is that our mission is ongoing. The sound of alarms may cease, and a critical incident may conclude, but the challenges faced by corrections officers don’t end with a peace treaty or a parade. Monday transitions to Tuesday, and the cycle continues. Regardless of our achievements today, tomorrow always awaits. In dealing with both the public and the inmates we serve, I am frequently reminded of a line by Eddie Murphy: “What have you done for me lately?”

Modern correctional leaders cannot afford to rest on their laurels or cite past successes as evidence of mastery in leadership. It’s not enough to step back and claim we have mastered leadership. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of the word “master,” including having chief authority or gaining a thorough understanding. This raises a question: if the mission is ongoing, can we truly claim to have become Masters of Leadership? I argue that we must strive to practice leadership daily in the following ways:

Engage in regular and meaningful communication with your staff

Maintaining regular and meaningful communication with your staff is crucial for building rapport and gaining insights into their perceptions and morale. Open lines of communication build trust, encourage transparency, and foster a strong team environment. This means not only disseminating information but also actively listening to staff feedback and concerns.

One-on-one conversations are significantly more effective for staff development than lecture-style shift briefings. Engaging with staff individually humanizes you as a leader and encourages them to ask questions that may be on their minds in a more informal setting. Being approachable and taking the time to build relationships can transform your leadership effectiveness. Getting to know the men and women who ensure the safety of your facility allows you to explain the reasoning behind operations, potentially elevating performance to a new level.

Enforce standards with impartial fairness

Enforcing standards with impartial fairness is a challenging task, particularly in environments where discipline or corrective action is feared as a potential morale killer and a cause for staff turnover. Consistency in applying rules and expectations is crucial. Everyone, regardless of rank or relationship, should be held to the same standards, ensuring fairness and integrity in all decisions.

Upholding standards consistently requires considerable courage and discipline. It’s tempting to overlook minor issues, especially when staffing gaps narrow between hiring periods — issues like tardiness, paperwork discrepancies, or unprofessional behavior. However, these seemingly minor issues can gradually erode morale. Ignoring small problems may lead to larger issues, such as perceptions of favoritism or security breaches. By holding staff to established standards, you play a crucial role in minimizing liability, and staff members understand the expectations they need to meet. As my lieutenant often says, “I don’t ask for 20 pushups if the standard is 10; I just want the 10. Anything more is your good initiative.” This approach emphasizes the importance of meeting, not necessarily exceeding, standards as a foundation for professional conduct and accountability.

Forgive mistakes and focus on coaching rather than discipline

While it’s crucial to maintain standards, staff also require ongoing development and mentorship — a responsibility that falls significantly on leaders, whether intentionally or not. Your actions and how you manage both your own and your staff’s mistakes serve as a key part of their professional growth.

Everyone makes mistakes, and providing space for learning from these errors is essential. View mistakes as learning opportunities. Instead of defaulting to punitive measures, use errors as a chance to coach and develop your staff. This approach encourages growth and improvement.

Over the years, a perilous zero-defect mentality has crept into corrections, an industry inherently susceptible to human error and miscommunication. However, minor mistakes offer opportunities for coaching rather than punitive measures. While documentation of incidents is necessary, engaging in discussions about what occurred and adjusting the response based on the actual or potential impact can enhance staff competence and confidence. This approach is particularly beneficial for newer officers, as it supports their development without compromising the high standards required in corrections.

Self-reflect and ask yourself the tough questions

With the foundational actions of meaningful communication, impartial enforcement of standards, and a focus on development and mentorship established, it’s crucial to engage in self-reflection and confront challenging questions. Questions such as, “Have I made a difference today?” or “Would I follow myself into a hostile environment?” can yield uncomfortable truths.

Regular self-reflection is vital for personal and professional growth. Leaders should constantly evaluate their actions, decisions, and leadership style, asking themselves challenging questions to identify areas for improvement.

Like our staff, leaders are not immune to compassion fatigue and burnout, especially given the relentless nature of our mission. The commitment to continuous improvement in leadership is essential. While Jedi Master Yoda famously said, “Do or do not, there is no try,” this perspective doesn’t fully account for the complexities of sustained leadership. Being an exemplary leader in short bursts is one thing; maintaining that standard indefinitely, amid ongoing challenges, is far more demanding. Therefore, it’s imperative to persist in our efforts, striving each day to enhance our leadership practices, acknowledging that the journey of improvement is continuous and ever-evolving.

Never stop learning

Finally, as many before me have said, never stop learning. This encompasses a broad spectrum, from staying abreast of new policies and correctional technologies to engaging in self-study and pursuing hobbies. Continual learning is not only a method of personal betterment but also a key to enhancing your team and the broader organization. Echoing President John F. Kennedy’s sentiment, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between growth in knowledge and effective leadership.

The landscape of corrections, like any field, is ever-evolving. A true leader remains open to new ideas, approaches, and innovations, committed to continuous learning and adaptation.

Dedicating time to learn and integrate new skills prevents stagnation and complacency. Given the dynamic nature of corrections, adapting to and leading through change is essential, making the commitment to lifelong learning a cornerstone of effective leadership in this field.

The adage “complacency kills” is equally applicable to the perishable nature of leadership skills. Without a proactive effort to lead, we risk relegating ourselves to mere management, cornered and devoid of credibility. At no point in our careers can we afford to declare mastery over leadership; it is a continuous journey of improvement and adaptation. Striving to enhance our leadership abilities is essential in navigating the complexities of this ever-changing and noble profession. We must commit to practicing leadership relentlessly, acknowledging that mistakes are inevitable but also integral to our growth and development. By doing so, we illuminate the path forward for our teams, embodying the resilience and dedication required to thrive in the dynamic landscape of corrections.

About the author

Adam Sowden is a correctional supervisor and has worked at a local facility in Tennessee for over seven years. With experience in housing, intake and administrative aspects of corrections, Sowden looks to develop successful new officers and help them accomplish their career goals.