Is correctional leadership innate or learned?

Effective leaders are distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill


Law enforcement agencies are paramilitary organizations structured according to rank. Power, authority and management are distributed along a chain of command.

Do you think a leader has to have rank, authority or a title?

Leadership is not about a title or position. Position, title and authority are often confused with leadership. The best leaders don’t lead from position or authority. A title does not make one a leader.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

A leader is someone in control, someone with integrity, confidence, a positive attitude, competence, and commitment.

Isn’t that exactly what being a correctional officer is all about?

We hold leadership positions, even if we are line level staff with no rank. Usually when we think of a leader, it’s someone who has been promoted and is making their way up the corporate ladder. Many incorrectly talk about leadership as being the senior executives of an organization. 

Truly effective leaders are those who complete their job successfully, efficiently and with passion. Effective leaders are also distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

I recently saw these words in Entrepreneur magazine, which read, “Ask anyone in the armed forces – especially those operating in the battlefield – about leadership, and the answer will be telling. It’s usually along the lines of: I am leading you to keep you alive. I lead for you, and I lead to make you better. The point is: Leadership is never about you – it’s about them. And how you lead says a lot about your company and a lot about you. And if you’re not good at it, damn, that’s bad.”

It was not until a few weeks ago, while observing my trainee, I noticed him successfully managing the inmates on my housing unit. I realized for the first time while watching him that we as correctional officers are leaders. Here was someone brand spanking new to the job, who was managing and leading. 

I stood back and watched the inmates respond favorably to him. I even noticed the inmates were not testing him as they usually do with other trainees. While in the training program, he, along with all trainees, were receiving the tools needed for his correctional officer toolbox to be successful at the job. It was in this moment of watching him that I recognized he had traits that will make him a successful leader as a correctional officer.

I began to think more: Are we born with the personality characteristics that give us certain leadership abilities or can we develop skills and learn to be a leader?

I told myself you either have it or you don’t. But the more I thought, I realized how much I have learned since I was a rookie. I thought about the leadership qualities I possessed when I started the job and the ones I have learned from my training officers, sergeants and fellow co-workers over the years. I even owe credit to the inmates for teaching me a thing or two on how to be a good leader.

I realized leadership is innate and learned. We learn leadership skills from our parents, teachers, coaches, Boy Scout leaders and supervisors in the military.

Leadership qualities come more easily to some rather than others and I realized my trainee had some natural leadership skills. His innate skills included: courage, self-discipline and motivation, and a strong sense of moral righteousness.

And here I am, to teach him more skills for the job.

Leadership is a complex composite of personal attributes, the way we act and the skills we possess. Some people are born with a natural desire and ability to lead. Some are not, but can still go on to become great leaders. For those who are not natural born leaders, these skills can be developed and mastered.

Many of us can develop technical, human and conceptual skills and gain knowledge and confidence as we progress and grow in our jobs.

No matter where we work or what assignment we are responsible for, being a correctional officer means being a leader. Leadership is our contribution and service to ourselves and our organizations.

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