How to be an effective leader in corrections

It is essential to develop your leadership skills to match the core competencies COs are looking for from their supervisors


When you ask correctional officers what traits they desire from a leader, you hear responses like:

  • A person who leads from the front and is straightforward.
  • A person who listens to subordinates and is proactive.
  • A person who is not focused on him or herself and is mission-oriented and responsible.
  • A person who has a goal in mind and uses common sense.
  • A person who treats others as they wish to be treated by showing mutual respect.
  • A person who is trustworthy, reliable, has integrity and the gift to inspire.

How well you adapt to being a leader will rely on your continued willingness to learn and develop your leadership skills to match the core competencies COs are looking for from supervisors. Here are some steps to accomplishing this:

be A leader with purpose

Successful leaders have a sense of purpose. A leader with purpose will always consider how successful their officers are and how successful they will be at completing the mission or assigned tasks.

A sense of purpose makes a leader ask him or herself, “How will I be remembered as a leader?” This in no way is being selfish. This is a leader who is focused on purpose and wants successful outcomes for his or her subordinates and the agency. A leader without a sense of purpose is just an empty shell. A sense of purpose makes leaders stronger and more willing to perform at a high level for themselves, their subordinates and the agency goals.

Be a leader who communicates

Communication is a critical element of effective leadership. As a leader it just as important to listen to your officers as it is to keep them informed. Officers respond best when they know what is going on and why a task needs to be performed. Keeping officers informed helps them to better understand the process and procedure, which in turn helps them to make the best decisions.

Without communication, there is no way to motivate or inspire your officers. Clear communication keeps the channels open for officers to understand the agency's goals, strategy, accountability and discipline. Failure to communicate will poison the well. Communication is a two-way street and, as a leader, you must be willing to master it in order to be successful.

Be a leader, not a boss

There is a big difference between being a boss and being a leader. Leaders want people to be successful while a boss wants people to perform so it reflects well on them. Leaders gauge their success on the success of their subordinates. A boss wants to look good in the eyes of upper management and uses their subordinates as a means to showcase his or her success. A leader feels their officers reflect them while a boss only cares about him or herself.  

Be a leader who sets the example

Having a good work ethic, a professional appearance and sound job knowledge will not only build your confidence as a leader but will earn you the respect of your officers. Overcome your weaknesses through self-awareness, self-discipline and inner purpose. This will increase your ability to educate and inform your officers.

When your officers know you will get your hands dirty when you have to and you take responsibility for failure you will earn their respect. If you want to be a great leader always remember that actions speak louder than words. Telling your officers to stay late and then you go home is not part of “walking the walk.”

When you as a leader do not practice what you preach, you will lose the trust of your officers very quickly. Productivity will drop and you will have a total loss of respect. Sure, you can still give orders because you have the rank on your shoulders, but if you are leading a team that does not trust you the enthusiasm will disappear and you may find yourself alone on an island.

Transformational leadership involves using enthusiasm and inspiration through communication and leading by example. Some tips to remember:

  • Do not ask an officer to do something you would not do
  • Listen to your officers
  • Do not micromanage
  • Take responsibility for your mistakes
  • Help your officers become successful
  • Communicate your goals
  • Always encourage your officers to do their best
  • Provide them with the tools to be successful

Be a leader who is aware of your officers' needs

A good leader knows his or her people and their personalities. Always watch your team and look for any non-verbal signs that indicate a team member may need help or is not having a good day. Communicate with that officer and offer assistance. Helping an officer with personal problems or work issues is a big part of a leader’s job. Problems can vary from financial to marital issues. Personal counseling is part of the job and you may have to refer an officer to your human resources office for professional help.

Counseling officers who have violated policies or procedures is also part of a leader’s duties. Taking corrective steps with disciplinary counseling can save an officer from failure. Informing officers of what they are doing wrong can improve their performance and put them on the right track.

Always conduct any type of counseling in private. While counseling, also be a good listener. The goal is professional growth for the officer through guidance and discipline.

Leadership comes with great responsibilities. Make sure you are ready. Decide on the leadership strategy you will use to develop your team of officers and make them successful. Assess your own leadership performance and if you feel the need to discuss your performance with your leaders, peers or subordinates then do so. Remember it’s all about teamwork. You are not alone.

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