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6 mistakes a correctional leader should never make

To be a leader, you must have an arsenal of knowledge, integrity, loyalty and team management skills readily available


Supervisors, it is up to you to keep up professionalism.


A frontline correctional leader must have a tool kit full of experience and education. Being a leader is not walking around with a cup of coffee barking orders or saying “I don’t have time for this right now.” To be a leader you must have an arsenal of knowledge, integrity and loyalty, as well as team management skills readily available.

A corrections leader is unique. Unlike most jobs, a corrections leader deals with supervising not only the correctional staff, but the criminal element as well. All day long officers need assistance and inmates have requests that move up through the chain of command. Not to mention upper management calling for answers (and I mean now!). A good frontline leader has a combination of both cell block experience, a good education and exceptional training. Anything less is unacceptable.

The question is: Are we promoting people who have what it takes to deal with the human factors involved and not just the paperwork? Nobody is perfect but I personally would like to know I can count on my leader and he or she can count on me. It is a two-way street and leaders rely on line staff as much as line staff relies on their leaders.

“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand,” Gen. Colin Powell.

Here are six mistakes a correctional leader should avoid making.

1. I don’t have time for this

Officers watch and listen to what supervisors say even when it appears they are not listening. Officers will follow examples displayed by a leader even more than what they have learned in training. A negative attitude displayed by a supervisor will rub off on frontline officers, who will then display the same negative attitude toward work or fellow officers.

A leader should never respond to an officer asking a question with, “I don’t have time for this, don’t bother me right now.” The question must be important to the officer or it would not be asked. The question may also be very important to the mission.

Yes, it may also be about a request for vacation, doctor’s appointment or a family matter. In that case it is still the leader’s job to listen and take time to answer.

As a leader you signed up for the entire package not just the parts you decide you want to deal with. If you give the officer the impression you do not care about his personal problems then the officer reads it as if you don’t care about him.

I know what you’re thinking: “Poor, sensitive officer.” That is not the case at all. As humans we can read when someone does not care. If a leader does not care then all respect is lost. Respect equals loyalty and a willingness to follow. Without it a leader is nothing in the eyes of the troops. When officers stop bringing you their problems you have lost them. Their confidence in you is lost when you push them away with negative comments.

“The surest way to reveal one’s character is not through adversity but by giving them power,” Abraham Lincoln.

2. Don’t take all the credit

Have you ever had a supervisor who jumps in and takes credit for a job well done in an emergency situation or a special project? It happens more often than you realize.

Officers once told me they evacuated inmates from a cell fire and then put out the fire. A supervisor came along and took all the credit and “Atta boys” from upper management.

A good leader will brag about his staff and reward them by putting them out front without taking credit from them. If you want to lose respect fast then take credit for what your officers do for you.

“Do what is right, not what you think the high headquarters wants or what you think makes you look good,” Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

3. Don’t play favorites

Many of us learned early in the military not to have subordinates hanging out in the sergeant’s office. The perception of fraternization or favoritism toward certain people can destroy and separate your staff.

When some officers are in their dorms working or making rounds and the same officers are always laughing and joking in the sergeant’s office it begins to wear on the other staff members. In corrections, which is always short staffed, there is no reason for some officers to be working and others smoking and joking. If we have time for smoking and joking then we cannot cry that we need more officers.

I remember leaving the military and becoming a correctional officer. During briefing, the sergeants told us our jobs were in the dorms, not in their office. They still responded to the questions and needs of each officer without incident.

Supervisors, it is up to you to keep up professionalism. One of the most de-motivating circumstances is when someone on your squad is given preferential treatment. It destroys initiative and trust.

4. Don’t try to do it all yourself

Never try and do everything yourself as a leader. This is not leadership. Delegate jobs to your staff and let them use their own minds to get the job done and do the right thing. Train your staff, guide them in the right direction but do not do their jobs for them.

First of all, the staff will never learn anything if you do their work for them. Second, you will not last long as a supervisor because of burn out and stress. Be a leader and watch your staff grow.

“Never tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and they will surprise you with ingenuity,” Gen. George Patton.

5. Do not ignore agency policy

We must follow policy in order to maintain the integrity of the agency. Have you ever heard a supervisor say, “I don’t care what the policy says; we are doing it this way?”

Be very careful not to take your own crew down with the ship. As a leader you must follow policy to protect yourself, your staff and your agency. Do not allow the excitement of the moment in an emergency situation lead you astray.

“Honesty is the best policy,” Benjamin Franklin.

6. Do not reject reports of staff misconduct

Over 12 years of investigating prison administrative, criminal and civil cases I have seen many good leaders make the mistake of not wanting to hear any complaints against staff or allegations of misconduct. If ignored, these complaints can turn into a major issue and cause embarrassment for the supervisor and the agency.

As a leader it is your job to listen and report any allegations of misconduct. If the allegations are criminal in nature certain procedures must be followed. Failure to report allegations of misconduct could cost you your job.

Why risk your job, rank and reputation by covering up or avoiding looking into allegations of misconduct? If the allegations are unsubstantiated everything is fine. If the allegations are substantiated then you did your job and no one can say you did not do your job.

Remember it is an officer’s duty to report unethical conduct. It is also a supervisor’s duty to look into it and report it according to agency policy and procedure.

There are many mistakes leaders can make. I have only pointed out a few. Being a leader is not easy. Staying positive and always learning will be appreciated and noticed by your staff.

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.

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