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The Road to Safety: Line Level Leadership
By Joe Bouchard and Tracy Barnhart
Published: 03/01/2010

Road painted desert arizona A conversation between Joe Bouchard and Tracy Barnhart

At the risk of sounding dramatic, corrections can sometimes be a lonely place. There are times during the course of our duties that feel stranded by the circumstances. On occasion, we don’t know where to turn when we are faced with a new scenario. What is a corrections professional to do when a direct supervisor is not present at a time we seek instant leadership.

Sometime we provide what we need to ourselves through experience and training. Other times, line level leadership saves the day. But, in a paramilitary organization, can de facto leadership clash with the true chain of command? This is a question that seems to recur when travel on the Road to Safety.

Joe Bouchard:
Tracy, I need your take on this in particular because of your experience in the United States Marine Corps. I know that the chain of command is important in the transmission of information and issuing of policy and procedure. But, what about line level leadership? Can this be discounted as working outside the chain? Or is this a necessary part of our operation? And how does discretion come into play?

Tracy Barnhart:
Great topic Joe, I would be glad to give you my opinions. Understand that there will always be leaders, formal and non-formal. Some will seek out dynamic individuals they work with whom others will go to for information, understanding and affirmation whether they have actual rank or not. This sometimes does undermine the chain if these dynamic individuals are jaded or their views are outside the lines of the organization. Unfortunately, the corrections profession, like society at large, suffers from a lack of effective leadership; it has way too many followers. Indeed, the paramilitary, hierarchical structure that still exists in most corrections facilities today helps to ensure this surplus of followers as well as a corresponding scarcity of leaders.

Joe Bouchard:
So, from this, I see three components that must work well together: The official leaders, the non-formal leaders, and the body of followers. But it seems that the link is the non-official leader. I gather that the non-formal or de facto leader can come in many varieties. You mention that the jaded sort can throw the proverbial wrench in the works. That could, potentially, cause harm through a chain of conflicting expectations from the followers. But, if this leader works with the goals of the institution and is allowed to lead others, that could fill the vacuum in a meaningful way.

I have witnessed many line level leaders in action. One of their inspiring traits is believability. I think that others are willing to follow a person who seems genuine and truthful. Perhaps “trustability” is the word I seek to describe this. What other traits, Tracy, do you think are necessary for an effective line level leader?

Tracy Barnhart:
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

Joe Bouchard:
Perhaps in confidence there is a bit of humility. If you are able to accept that you can learn (and should learn) from others, that makes you a better leader. Here is my short list of what makes an effective leader: assertion (not aggression), knowledge, experience, authority (but with the desire to benefit from others’ talents), creativity, a sight of the agency’s and institution’s mission, and the ability to establish honest rapport.

Then there is the issue of charisma. Does a leader have to be likeable? It is not necessary, but it does help. For most people, it is better to be respected than liked. True, there will always be cliques and nepotism. But ability can win in the end over empty connedctions. I know that this may sound overoptimistic. But this comes to pass when leaders (de facto and de jure) recognize talent and utilize it, regardless of networks.

Tracy Barnhart:
"Lions for Lambs," stems from an expression that German soldiers used in referring to their British counterparts during World War One. Admiring the bravery of the English infantry while condemning the idiocy of their superiors, the Germans would remark "Never before have such lions been led by such lambs." There are three primary management styles: The “Superior," the “Companion," and the "Leader."

"Superiors" manage officers with a domineering management style. They tend to focus on the negative and all too often take positive things for granted. This manager is hard to please, causes high employee turnover and productivity potential is not reached.

"Companions" focus on being nice to their officers. They avoid confrontation and dealing with negative issues (such as, under performance and behavioral problems). Companions often get taken advantage of by poor-performing officers and lose top performers because they are burdened with covering for poor-performing officers who aren't properly corrected by companion managers. Often this is the source of what employees call favoritism. However it really is a lack of aptitude on the companion’s ability to deal with poor-performing employees.

"Leaders" are nice most of the time, but are firm when they need to be. Their ability to motivate and empower officers to excel is the key to their success. People enjoy working for leaders and they have the highest productivity and retention rates of all the management styles. "Leaders" have the moral fortitude to act decisively because they have a clear conscience about acting in the best interest of all concerned. Leaders don't treat everyone the same. They think through issues and people's backgrounds to respond appropriately. Experience and training enables them to wisely respond to the unique circumstances they encounter. And, most important, they are proactive and lay the foundation for nurturing employees to bring out the best in them. Leaders do this, in part, by wisely addressing performance and behavioral problems. This develops the untapped potential in employees and increases safety and security for the long run!

Effective leadership is like doing the right thing. It is not always easy to do, but it is best in the long run. And whether you are a line level leader or officially nested in the chain of command, it is good to remember the many traits that comprise a good leader. As we all know, leadership is necessary on the road to safety.

Other "Road to Safety" articles by Bouchard and Barnhart:

Visit the Joe Bouchard or the Tracy Barnhart page


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