Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Leadership for Challenging Times

 By Tracy Barnhart, Contributing Backgate Training Author

In the past I have been fairly critical of the supervision I have seen within the law enforcement and correctional community.  I have given very graphics examples and descriptions of the poor efforts being applied by many managers in all aspects of the administrative roles of our agencies.  And yet I have been given an opportunity to offer a solution to the problems administrators of today as well as the supervisors of tomorrow will experience.  An action plans so to speak, a detailed roadmap to deal with change and how to become a better decision maker and a leader whom your officers will want to follow and excel for.   They will sacrifice and extend loyalty and they will grow and develop.

The first thing I would tell all new and present supervisors is this; “Teach your job to someone else and learn someone else’s job.”  Take a minute and ask yourself this question, “Are we a Para-Military organization or are we just playing military?”  In no other profession do we promote people into supervisory roles within our agencies and then we might give you the training on how to do their job.  Our supervisors are so poorly trained that most of the training is left up to “on the job training” to fulfill the education aspects of a supervisor.  The actual military has found out that this little bit of leadership information could lead to either a victory or failure within their organization.  Each member must know how to do everyone’s job in case the inevitable ever happens… 

In our agencies it seems that administrators are afraid that someone exhibiting a greater knowledge will take their job so they keep their information secret in an attempt to seem more knowledgeable that the rest.  In reality smart leaders surround themselves with people that are smarter than themselves.  Realize, each of us are no better than anyone else in the room, we all just have different experiences.  A leader’s goal is to do three things for their officers:

  1. Educate
  2. Stimulate
  3. Motivate

When things are not working well and there is a failure and frustration, there will always be some violations of the rule of leadership.  Leadership is easy, being a good leader is however, very hard.  As supervisors strive to make difficult decisions I will give you a simple checklist to work from. 

  1. Will this decision benefit the workers?
  2. Is the change in line with the mission and vision of the organization?
  3. Is the change specific and clear?
  4. Can we test the change before the final decision is made?
Decision Making under Stress is crucial, it’s not enough to keep from panicking under life-and-death conditions so the effective command leader must be able to think clearly and make critical split decisions under fire as the preverbal “shit is hitting the fan.”  This requires the ability to tune out the noise, take in and distill the relevant environmental data, and come up with a useful response.  The key is not to be “relaxed,” but to maintain an optimal arousal state of focused concentration without distracting anxiety.  Sometimes subtitled under the heading of “charisma,” this leadership quality is more than just the brashness and swagger that this term implies.  Rather, it consists of a calm, purposeful, self-assured interpersonal style that inspires the troops with confidence and commands respect without having to fish for it.  There is always a leadership test to any decision you will make and that is this:

Am I doing the right thing?
At the right time?
In the right Way?
For the right reason?

If your answers are “yes” to all the leadership test questions above then your results should be beneficial to all concerned.  There are seven steps to leadership decision making and they are as follows:

  1. There must be an awareness that a problem exists.
  2. You must obtain all the facts first.
  3. Once you have all the information you can then evaluate and analyze.
  4. Determine if there are alternate solutions to the problem.
  5. Select the decision from the various alternative solutions.
  6. Consult with your officers and other peer supervisors.
  7. And finally, communicate the decision to those who have to carry it out. 

I want to add an additional eighth step in the decision making process and that being: “Be present with those individuals whom you have ordered to carry out your decision to show support.”  No matter whom above you issues the initial order or directive, YOU are the reason for the choice or directions when you present it to your officers.  When you say, “This came down from the ivory tower, I don’t agree with it but we have to do it.”  What you actually just said is this, “I don’t care if you give it your all or do it right, because I don’t care.”

Some of the best police officers I know have no aspirations to promote to leadership positions, yet they lead by example within their departments, and they are amazing leaders in other areas of their lives.  They lead their families, they are church and community leaders, they are elected officials in some capacity, or they have reserve military careers. I find these individuals to be among the finest officers, because they understand the principles of leadership and also “followership.” They understand that both require loyalty, dependability, and unselfishness. In whatever position they find themselves, follower or leader, they make the lives of the people around them better.

Not everyone can be a leader; in fact, very few true leaders exist. Most are found in the business world, military services, law enforcement, or corrections where the rubber actually meets the road. In the real world of success and failure; life and death, competition separates the leaders from the managers and their close relatives, the supervisors. There’s a distinct difference between these three concepts. You may have good managers, even good supervisors, but leaders? That’s something special. You don’t inherit this quality, delegate it or have it handed to you.  Neither do you have it by virtue of promotion or election.  You can’t buy it or give it away. The essence of a leader is mixed and molded by physical and mental traits, intelligence level, aptitude and temperament.
Leaders inspire others, forged by the strife of life; leaders learn to set an example. Not only do they care about the people they lead, they also possess a genuine compassion for others, and are not afraid to accept responsibility. They embrace the concept of being held accountable and accept the consequences of such. A sense of decisiveness pervades their thinking, enabling them to get things done, and they aren’t afraid of making mistakes. They’ve accepted the fact that mistakes are a part of the job. Despite obstacles, leaders normally prevail against the odds.  Leaders believe in the ability of their subordinates in the process, subordinates learn to believe in leadership. Leading by example is crucial to the leadership continuum. Leaders know when to take charge and when to delegate authority.  Leaders know when it comes to work-related productivity; a leader’s subordinates always get credit due.

Leaders are not afraid to get their hands dirty and e
ffective leadership encompasses tactical and technical proficiencies. True leaders do not forget where they came from, regardless of rank. Ranking officers have a unique responsibility to demonstrate leadership and this is their primary operational function.  In discussions about leadership characteristics, people often cite such things as honesty, integrity and reliability. Things like “adherence to a code of conduct” and “honor and consistency” comes to mind.  This is the result of a well grounded sense of self worth. 

“Be what you are. This is the first step toward becoming better than you are.”  Julius Charles Hare

Keep your people safe is the first thing the leader must accomplish establish a problem assessment to determine what your people are facing. Is this a hostile inmate? What is that brown gooey stuff running out from under the kitchen door? How many people could be in that building that was just collapsed by a tornado?  Most importantly, how does this threat endanger your own officers?  You all know that the aforementioned scenarios are horribly panic ridden and confusing.  At one point during the Columbine school attack; as many as eight shooters were thought to be active in the building.  Always remember, the officers under your command come first and they should always know that you hold their safety and security in high regard. 

The word “courage” usually conjures visions of performing dangerous acts of valor in the midst of hazards or threats. However, there is another realm of fear that rarely involves physical risk, but does require great moral courage. Those in leadership positions face various kinds of real fear from this realm, including the fear of failure, the fear of criticism and the fear of rejection. In fact, these fears prevent many people from assuming leadership. Leaders combat these fears with the courage of conviction.  Leadership requires making decisions.  A decision always entails the possibility of error or the risk of criticism when additional facts come to light. The acute fear of failure can paralyze you into inaction. Leaders learn to make decisions without the benefit of all the facts. Doing so makes you a true leader.  Leadership is easy, being a leader is hard.


  1. Thank you Tracy Barnhart for this informative information. Supervisors today are not like they used to be. The young do not have any people skills. Who knows it might stem from not interacting with other children growing up. With all the electronics that keep people indoors they never learned how to talk to anyone.

  2. Who knows why supervisors are the way they are these days,I'm sure many different reasons however I would give anything to have supervisors like the ones you describe.There are none like that where I work. They would rather put you down,accuse you of things you don't do and threaten to write you up on a daily basis.Instead of inspiring they drag you down.We have one woman supervisor that was a CO with me and now that she has power she doesn't even speak to people she worked with on a daily basis,except to bitch about something.TDCJ has gone in the crapper and it's gonna take a hell of a lot to get it out.It won't happen in my time.I just hope I can last until I retire.It makes me sad because I used to love this job. Now it's where you can't do your job. the inmates run wild,they do what they want.Even on lockdown ! I never thought I would see inmate's allowed to go to the store and reck while on lockdown, but it happens all the time.Our unit has become so "handsoff" that I've seen a sarg. get spit on ( in the face) and nothing was done. Inmates pull away and we are not to have a use of force. It's hard to get the inmates to respect you when you are threatened with being fired for any use of force.If we could only turn back the hands of time!!

  3. It's not just in the correctional faction of TDC. The clerical supervisors treat the help like they are second class citizens. Most of the time it's trying to figure out what you are to do and if you mess up, watch out. The hounds of hell are on you!!