Help wanted: Servant leaders needed in correctional services

As leaders, when we find ways to engage and support our staff, there isn't much we can't overcome


If I had to post a help-wanted ad for any correctional leadership position out there, it would look something like the following:

Help Wanted: Servant Leaders Needed in Correctional Services.

Responsibilities: A leader who shares power, puts the needs of others first, helps individuals develop and optimize performance, is willing to learn from others, and forsakes personal advancement and rewards. This leader also concentrates on performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and helping people achieve their short- and long-term goals.

Skills Needed: Patience, Kindness, Courtesy, Commitment, Humility, Respect, Honesty, Loyalty, Active Listening and Trust.

But unfortunately for many of us working in corrections today, this ideal candidate is a far cry from what we typically experience in our interactions with superiors on the job. Just the other day, I was watching a YouTube video on the New York City Department of Correction. In the video, which you can see below, they address the crisis that's been going on at Rikers, with staffing inadequacies so critical that a federal judge is, as I type this, considering turning over the entire agency to a federal receiver

For the first few minutes of the video, I said to myself, "Nothing new here." Because let's be honest, haven't we been arguing about issues like understaffing, underfunding and lack of resources for years now? I know I was in 1987, and that is exactly what is going on in 2022. 

As I continued to watch, however, the video took a turn. The interviewer spoke with previous department personnel, including the former DOC commissioner, who stated he was aware of the staff shortages, abuse of sick leave, facility issues, social support, and judicial issues, just to name a few.

I said to myself, "OK, he is aware of the issues, so let’s see what he does to address them." And while he seemed to do all the appropriate things – the personnel issues were addressed with disciplinary actions and administrative complaints to the union representative, the mayor and city were notified, an investigator was assigned to review potential policy violations and misconduct – he, as well as the former investigator who joined him in the interview, came to the conclusion that their hands were ultimately tied from enacting real change. 

Again, as administrators, we have dealt with this before, the “Us vs. Them" mentality and the feeling that everything that could have been done was done.

I know it was a short eight-minute video with possibly one-sided reporting outlining the fault of the city government and union officials in not supporting the institutional concerns, but I still found myself wondering was everything really done? Could there have been more, and more importantly, what more could have been done internally?

I also couldn't help but wonder: Where was the personal ownership on the part of the commissioner? Where was the mitigation? Where was the leadership? 

could servant leadership have made the difference?

While I certainly believe there is wisdom in the saying, "Try not to cast stones into other people’s windows when you yourself live in a glass house," I also realized as the video came to an end what a perfect real-life scenario for a lesson in servant leadership I had just stumbled upon.

Now, you’re probably thinking, "Here we go again with the fancy words and another way of introducing management and supervision techniques." You're probably also asking do we really need this article?  

Let me just start off by saying that I don't mean to discount anyone's education and experience – because like most of you, I've also been around the block a few times – but I think we can all agree to call a spade a spade. For the past many decades, we as a profession have supervised and managed within a paramilitary structure of command and authoritative presence, and for the most part, it worked for us. It was how we learned from our predecessors. 

As many of our careers advanced, however, we started to adjust a bit and experimented with a more participative style of management and supervision. You ask does it work? My response is yes. As I was fortunate to have learned from my own predecessors, when you value someone and trust your personnel, the sky is the limit. 

What does servant leadership really look like in corrections?

As I briefly touched upon at the start of this article, servant leadership means we look within ourselves and make the necessary changes within our respective institutions. Servant leadership does not cost a thing because it starts with us and how we perform our administrative duties. We do not look for approval from our political officials, and we most certainly do not want the buck to stop with them.

Servant leadership facilitates others to perform and work within a paradigm of professionalism, ethical conduct and etiquette. It means encouraging diversity of thought, being patient, creating trust, having an unselfish mindset, being respectful, being honest, being committed, and fostering leadership skills in others through coaching and empowerment. Servant leadership is about active listening and strategic planning.

While it may seem like servant leadership necessitates you giving up your own authority, it actually means quite the opposite – as you spend time developing others so that they can meet and exceed their career objectives, you're building relationships that will keep your organization, and your leadership values, strong. 

To help illustrate what I'm talking about here, I'll give you an example. I had staff members who were good at their positions, but they were not satisfied and were looking for a change. In the beginning, I would say, “Oh well. We will just replace you with someone else.” I had this mentality for years. And while I recognize that it's normal to lose personnel within the first few years, and for the most part it's acceptable, those weren't the only employees I had that decided to walk away. When I started to see senior personnel put in their notices, I realized we were losing institutional wisdom that would take years to overcome, if that was even possible.

That's when I decided to take a management course in leadership and staff development, and I was fortunately introduced to the concept of servant leadership, which was being used in the corporate world at the time. The lessons seemed promising, so I decided to start using them to try and address everything that was possible internally, to change not only my mindset but the mindset of my entire organization. 

What did this look like on the ground? Well, for starters, if I had staff still wanting to leave, I would help them with their respective job change. I reached out to my colleagues and promoted their efforts to obtain their new position by asking the management to consider them as a candidate. I also started to do exit interviews to learn why they wanted to leave their current position. I then took that information and applied it to improve my current department. 

I also started to work with my trainers, first-line supervisors and the rest of the management team to install servant leadership within the department. I realized if one employee expresses concern, then most certainly more feel the same way. I made an investment and commitment to actively listen more, ask questions, and explain changes instead of putting them out in written format without the reasoning behind the decision. I used my policy and procedures as a learning mechanism and promoted those who performed well and within policy. 

Through servant leadership, I looked at solving problems in a different way. I empowered the supervisors and managers to make decisions and encouraged input from them. We started to promote staff achievements, and we looked for ways to mitigate issues and build bridges. We also improved our disciplinary policy, adopting a system of warning, remedial training, 30-60-90-day work plans, reprimand, suspension and termination. I even worked with union officials to strategically plan and build a positive relationship.

But perhaps most importantly, we included everyone to address concerns and made the necessary changes within the department that was within our control.

Let me also state something important here – as the CEO, the buck and responsibility always stopped with me, and I was always accountable for my actions. When decisions needed to be made, I made them.

And while many of my peers have asked over the years if servant leadership is just a passing fad, I couldn't disagree with this sentiment more. Even in my current administrative role with Remington College, I still apply these lessons every day; my goal each and every day is to learn and grow as a mentor, coach and all-around professional.

So, in closing, I'd like to encourage everyone reading this to learn and grow as well, and rather than focusing on what we can't do, let’s concentrate on all the things we can. Changing the internal aspects of our organizations is always possible if we look for ways to engage and support one another. While servant leadership isn't going to solve all our problems, it's certainly a strong start toward building a foundation of success for both ourselves and our people.  

NEXT: Are you shutting down a problem-solving leader?

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