Leadership under fire: When admins become commanders

When the correctional environment becomes a battlefield administrators become leaders of warriors


It is often said that employees are the most valuable resource available to the correctional administrator. But the opposite is also true. The leadership qualities of administrators are the most valuable resource to their employees.

The definition of a leader for me is more than skills and traits; rather, it is the interpersonal relationship that exists between the leader and the followers. That’s right – followers. Bucking the trend to make everyone in a working environment equal, I see corrections as functioning best when there is a strong chain of command.

A correctional administrator must exhibit the best qualities of two distinct types of leaders in order to be successful: mayor and commander. A correctional facility is a city where the Warden (as Mayor) is the chief political officer that oversees daily activities through department heads that, in turn, manage every aspect of the operation. The administrator is challenged many times each day with politics, minutia and bureaucratic duties, but the most severe challenge of the administrator as a leader is during an emergency. During an emergency, the administrator must also be a commander.

(Luke Whyte photo)
(Luke Whyte photo)

A leader of warriors
Correctional agencies are often considered paramilitary organizations, and the military characteristics become clearer during emergencies when the chief political officer becomes a leader of warriors, the commander in chief. The inmates may be the focus of the battle, with the protection of the employees and public as the goal.

With the similarities between a leader in a correctional emergency and the military, the definition for leadership used by the military can reasonably be applied to both entities. Working in a correctional agency during a crisis has distinct needs and differences from any other work environment.

14 traits and qualities of thought and action
The Marines have “14 Traits and Qualities of Thought and Action” that define leadership. It would be reasonable to lift the specifics directly from the Marine traits and qualities because in general they apply to any leadership role, but to supply a more specific correctional context we can us the titles the Marines supply while putting them in a correctional context:

JUSTICE: Give employees what they have coming, consider how the environment creates or discourages peak performance, and be more willing to help than to punish.

JUDGMENT: Think things through and, as often as possible, opt for incrementalism.

DEPENDABILITY: Live by a set of standards consistent with your employer’s ethics and rules.

INITIATIVE: Success isn’t measured by charging ahead, cutting a new path or pushing your own ideas. It is achieved by getting 100% of the team working to make the system safe and secure.

DECISIVENESS: Hesitation is dangerous, but big mistakes are disastrous. Get the facts, take action, but strive to get it right the first time.

TACT: Words can hurt, stifle, and anger or they can heal, inspire, and encourage. Be careful to send the right message.

INTEGRITY: What others observe is the foundation of your reputation.

ENTHUSIASM: A cheerful attitude is a vaccine and cure against burnout.

BEARING: Where a few dozen persons control hundreds, image is everything.

UNSELFISHNESS: Put your people first.

COURAGE: Do the right thing no matter the consequences.

KNOWLEDGE: Be an expert in the laws, policies, and rules that apply to your operation.

LOYALTY: You can’t be a leader if you don’t have followers, and you can’t have followers if you do not serve them first.

ENDURANCE: Don’t give up on people or something you know is right.

Corrections is not easy work and being a leader in a correctional agency is particularly hard. The heavy lifting often generates a sense that if you want something done right you need to do it yourself. This, however, is exactly the wrong focus.

Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero, president, and leader, is reputed to have said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” In other words, leadership is convincing others to be followers.

About the author

Russ Savage has over thirty five years of experience in all aspects of correctional operations, with all populations and all custody levels from community release to death row. His experience includes Prison Complex and Unit Administration positions as well as administrative roles including Departmental Operations Officer and Bureau Administrator for Facilities Activation. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Arizona State University.

Savage joins CorrectionsOne through the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. See all the CMIT columnists here.

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