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Effective leadership in corrections: 4 must-do things

If you want to help save the future of corrections, you need to take action

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Effective leadership is contagious.


Effective leadership has always played an important role in corrections, but with so many facilities hurting for staff and low on morale, this is especially true today. Being an effective leader may just be the difference between keeping staff and losing them.

With the way corrections work is structured, however, a leader is not just someone with rank; a line staff member who holds the respect of his or her peers and provides direction can be just as influential, and invaluable. We also know that having rank does not always make someone a leader.

Here’s what all leaders need to do to get the corrections profession back on track:

1. Motivate by doing the work

As an effective leader in corrections, you need to motivate your people. “Your people” means every officer you come into contact with, even your superiors. Motivation is a powerful tool, but in corrections right now, we seem to be having a shortage of leaders capable of inspiring.

As leaders, all eyes are on us to solve this problem – and we need to solve this problem. At my agency, one of my superiors was able to identify that the amount of overtime officers were putting in was causing a huge issue with morale. People were calling out every day on every shift.

What did my boss do? WORK. My superior worked the maximum number of hours that our union would allow (66 hours a week). By him sacrificing his time with his family, others gained time with theirs. This motivated me to do the same. I began sacrificing myself for my people. Complaints about overtime began to stop. Officers beneath my superior and I showed increased morale. Callouts for shifts lowered.

This is the power of motivation. It’s contagious. The easiest way to motivate people is to “bring it, don’t sing it.” That is, stop talking about what you are going to do or how you are going to do it, and just DO IT.

2. Stop complaining

If you want to save the future of corrections, you need to take action. Action from leaders, or those aspiring to become one, is a crucial requirement for any department that is seeking to remain relevant.

One of the complaints I often hear is that some of the new recruits are coming through the door without the mindset needed to become successful in corrections. Well, now that you have identified the problem, what are YOU going to do about it?

A few years ago I had an epiphany. I had been promoted to sergeant and ran my own shift. I was complaining about one of my officers to another supervisor, talking about how he was not “getting it.” The other supervisor asked me, “Well, what are you doing about it?” Wow. Right then and there I realized I had a lot of work to do on both myself as a leader and the officer I was talking about.

For the next couple of weeks, I spent my spare time developing this officer in need. I had assigned him a field training officer to work with while I monitored his progress, and I worked with him personally to guide him even more closely. This officer went on to show great improvement and became an asset to our agency, and it happened because he wasn’t given up on. I took the necessary action to DO something about his professional hurdles. Be the mentor your officers need to be successful.

3. Don’t pretend to be perfect

But what is a mentor? A Google search tells us that a mentor is “an experienced and trusted adviser.” With that definition in mind, how can it benefit your people?

At my agency, I am one of the more experienced people, having served 10 years so far. And in those 10 years, I have made many mistakes. Many. Still do. But what I don’t do is put myself out there as being perfect. If I make a mistake I own it, and I tell my people that if they see me making a mistake, they need to correct me so I don’t keep doing it. I do the same for my people, and they also correct each other.

A career in corrections can be intimidating with all the laws, policies, conflicts, etc. If people just entering the field are not given guidance, if they don’t have an honest mentor, it’s no wonder they leave before long. Change that. Show them how to navigate our profession. Forgive and retrain them after making honest mistakes. Take a personal interest in their growth, and show it. This will build confidence and create relationships. As a leader, train competent people below you to do this and follow up with everything. This creates bonds and a family-like atmosphere. The field of corrections sometimes requires sacrifice for one another; your people are more likely to sacrifice for a brother or sister than just a coworker.

4. Set the standard, then uphold it

As a leader, people look to you for direction. In my agency, every shift supervisor has to conduct what is called a “Safety, Security, Sanitation Check” in every part of the jail every shift. When I was promoted to sergeant of the day shift, my new corporal and I were checking an inmate sleeping area and noticed a lot of blankets hanging over their bunks to block the lights. This was a violation because the Inmates were using their blankets for something other than their intended purpose. When my corporal and I took the sheets and issued verbal warnings. however, the inmates said, “Every other officer lets us do it, why are you being such an asshole?”

My corporal and I exited the unit and spoke with the officer who had just conducted a check a few minutes prior to us. The officer explained that the previous shift’s supervisor and officers did not address it, so he didn’t understand why he should care. I explained that we are not here to go the path of least resistance, that the line had already been drawn and it’s our place to hold it.

I reviewed DVR and confirmed what was said; I saw previous officers conduct checks while allowing the sheets to remain hanging, all because a person in a leadership position did not uphold the standards. I addressed the other supervisor and noticed a change the next day: no more hanging sheets.

It is one thing to set the standard, but if you see that standard not being held, and do nothing about it, you are equally part of the problem. Your people need to see you upholding the standard that you set. This is how you get buy-in from those who follow you. This is how you earn your leadership. Don’t just talk about it. BE about it.

Your people are the most important thing

If you want to help save the future of corrections, you need to take action, build relationships with like-minded people, and attack your objectives. By being an effective leader, you will help keep honor in our line of work, you will keep the structure that is needed to maintain safety and security, and you will make a difference with those who work below you. Always remember that the people you lead are the most important thing; show them with action, and they will return the favor.

Next: How to keep the people you worked so hard to recruit

Jon Rocque is a First Sergeant for a defense contractor for the Navy and is a former Sergeant for Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department in Augusta, Maine. He is a certified instructor for the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, a member of the Crisis Intervention Team and certified in critical incident debriefing. Sgt. Rocque is a graduate of the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Academy and the Professional Development Academy.