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Cultivating Our Future: Preparing Tomorrow’s Corrections Leaders
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Kaplan University
Published: 09/22/2014

Leadership 2 One of the most important things a leader can do is to train his or her replacement. To that end, ensuring that up-and-coming leaders receive training in a set of vital competencies, whether through mentorship or the creation of formal training programs within a department or agency—is vital. Here we will briefly explore—briefly, by necessity—the competencies that the corrections leaders of tomorrow will need.

Written and oral communications: Leaders must be able to communicate effectively both orally and in writing for various reasons and to various audiences. The most junior officer is taught to write clear, factual reports, but as the level of responsibility increases, the need to motivate subordinates, persuade superiors, and explain important issues clearly to those outside the corrections community becomes ever more important.

Values and Ethics: The need for ethical behavior in corrections is equaled or surpassed in only a handful of other occupations. As public servants and representatives of the government, corrections professionals must serve the public trust, use tax dollars wisely, and fulfill the public expectation of integrity and honesty. As members of the law enforcement community, they must uphold the law in their own behavior and enforce adherence to the law by the inmates in their charge while ensuring the safety of the community. And as individuals with special power over the offenders they oversee, they must use that power fairly and consistently.

Development of interpersonal relationships: Research has indicated that shortcomings in creating and maintaining interpersonal relationships is one of the major causes of leadership failure. Leaders in corrections manage a variety of resources, but people are the greatest one. From a practical standpoint, rising through the ranks in a corrections agency typically means encountering some of the same people again and again. That being the case, the need for positive relationships should be clear.

The ability to motivate others: To make optimum use of the human resources at his or her disposal, a leader must be able to articulate a clear goal or vision and inspire others to work toward it. Corrections is one of the few environments where traditional hierarchical structures still exist, but authority alone can accomplish only so much.

Conflict management: In any setting where human beings work as a group, some conflict is inevitable. The ability to manage diverse personalities and help them realize their full potential is key to making an organization work at maximum efficiency. Of course, in corrections the inmate population adds a substantial and very important dimension to the need for conflict management skills.

Direct report development: As the introduction made clear, the mentorship, training, and development of subordinates is one of the leader’s most important responsibilities. Having the knowledge to do so effectively is therefore a crucial skill.

Internal and external collaboration: Collaboration takes place in organizations both internally and externally. Internal collaboration typically takes place not within the leader’s span of control (that is team building) but with other leaders in other parts of the organization. External collaboration is not usually needed until the senior levels of management, but many of the skills required are similar. In today’s environment of constrained budgets and limited resources but still-growing offender populations, working with rather than in competition against other departments and agencies is an invaluable skill.

Teamwork and team building: The most capable leader standing alone has little value to the organization. Rather, it is his or her ability to develop the full potential of his or her subordinates and derive maximum utility from the resources—human and otherwise—that are available. Teamwork and team building have been so emphasized in nearly every setting as to become trite, but there are still distinct skills to be learned to maximize the leader’s ability to create and lead a team.

Problem solving and decision-making: Obviously, the leader is responsible for making a wide range of decisions that fall to his or her level of authority. That responsibility is one of the main factors that sets the leader apart from subordinates. A good leader must be able to make rational, fair, and competent decisions within a reasonably short timeframe. He or she must also be able to clearly articulate the rationale behind a decision on some occasions, particularly as a member of a public agency. While professional knowledge and experience are certainly vital components, it is possible to learn skills that will expedite decision-making. Problem solving is required of a leader both as an individual and as part of a team, and while the processes have many similarities, guiding a team through the process adds a significant layer of complexity.

The ability to think strategically: “Strategic” means different things at different leadership levels. The cellblock lieutenant or shift captain will clearly have different long-term goals than a warden or agency director, but the need to think about the organization’s future path and how events and changing conditions are likely to affect it, as well as about its relationship with other organizations, applies for virtually every leader.

Management of change: It is natural for most people to resist change or at least be apprehensive about the benefits it will bring. Part of effective strategic thinking is the ability to guide the organization through needed changes. In some cases change will be imposed from above or outside by events or the decisions of higher-level leaders. Whatever the source of the change, the leader must be able to sell the changes, articulate a vision, and motivate subordinates to work toward it.

Individual and project performance assessment and program planning: A critical part of guiding a team or developing a subordinate is creating a plan for the way forward, assessing progress, and providing feedback. Often it will fall to the leader to create new systems or programs, especially if it is the leader who has identified the need for change, and obviously the leader must be able to assess progress and adjust accordingly.

Development of competency in the criminal justice system: In addition to the variety of generalized leadership skills that are needed, it is important to remember that the leader must continue to develop his or her core set of skills as a corrections professional.

This list of competencies should provide a template for any organization or leader to develop a training and development program for leaders at all levels, but particularly the junior leaders just entering the supervisory ranks.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


  1. banshidharsahu on 10/25/2014:


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