The Truth of Leadership
Wednesday, February 1, 2023
by: Wyatt Brown, CJM

Section: Guest Editorial

Often in the world of jail management, we find ourselves facing issues—that should be no surprise to anyone on the job for any length of time. We work in an environment that is constantly poisoned by the negative: inmates who do not wish to be incarcerated, families that do not want to deal with the costs and difficulties of incarceration, unsupportive community partners, and indifference or at times outright hostility from the political bodies that govern us—after all, there is little political capital to be made operating a jail. So, what is to be done?

We do what leaders do—we tell the truth, in all things. The job itself is abrasive and does what all abrasive things do—wears you down, or makes you sharper, depending on your constitution—wood is ground away, but steel takes an edge. Our task is to shore up the constitution of those in our charge, who volunteer to go into the bowels of our facilities every day.

In a society that often preaches “speak your truth,” we sometimes tend to lose sight of the value of truly honest communication. There is only one truth, it doesn’t belong to any of us, there are many unknowns, and wisdom is knowing which is which. The job of a leader is to prepare those following behind us to assume responsibility and care for what has been built—we cannot properly do so without honesty and humility.

Those of us that are parents understand this concept—there are no secrets from our children. Even those stories and lessons we like to presume are secret creep into their personalities, as every parent has had the pointed realization that whatever maddening situation has arisen…oh no, they are just like me. Withholding lessons from our children, whether success or failure, is a disservice to them. Leadership, and more importantly the stewardship of our profession, is much the same. As we prepare our kids to step out into a world that is often rough, rude, and difficult to navigate, we must do the same with those we care for on the job. 

Often there are things about the job or about our facilities we don’t want to admit—issues with management, personnel, inmates, funding, community, and political support—all of these factors weigh on each of us. Often leaders choose to deny these influences or choose not to pass them on to their staff, but we know they know the truth. Many of us have attended leadership training on generational differences. The generations we are preparing for leadership have an impressive radar for half-truths, after all, they grew up in a transitional or all-digital age where it was (and is) easier than ever to promulgate any message, true or not. Detecting deception is in their DNA, and our institutional communication should recognize that.

Our people know the truth about the job. Many of them know the truth of the job better than we remember it. How long has it been since you took a stroll through the hallways, checked a cell for contraband, helped process an intake, or stepped into a control room? Do you remember the smell of the housing unit and the tense feeling hanging in the air when something wasn’t right? If not, perhaps it is time for a personal inventory of why it is we do what we do. But the reality for many of us is that our daily duties take us far away from the sights and smells of what we manage—those “carpet side” obligations are every bit as imperative to operating our facilities—but they are not the reason we do so. We often forget that as we move closer to the top of the pyramid, we often lose sight that the base of our pyramid, the foundation that allows us to function, and the piece that truly handles the care, custody, and control—is our officers.

As leaders, we get tasked with how to best manage our officers and supervisors: where to best allocate resources for a given task. What we often forget in this never-ending pursuit is how we properly invest in our people. Do they feel like their voices matter? Do they have contact and opportunity to engage with leadership on a level that is open, helpful, and driven toward bettering the organization? The unfortunate reality is that if they are not shareholders in our organizations, then we have failed them, the public, and ourselves.

Some of the most robust research conducted on jail staff to date (while also noting that jails are traditionally heavily understudied and their roles misunderstood in the criminal justice system), shows that officers are much more satisfied in their positions when they feel they work in a positive environment, have supervision that listens and respects them, have a positive rapport with their chain of command, and feel empowered in their organization (Stinchcomb & Leip, 2013). What is more telling about this study is that it was conducted in cooperation with the AJA facilitating information on jails across the country, but more importantly that all of the metrics listed above were far more important than compensation.

Often morale is the issue we are assigned to tackle—how best to improve it? What do we need to add to the break room to stop the retention crisis and burnout cycle? Exactly how many popcorn machines, snow cone makers, and televisions will it take to keep people on the job? How many slices of pizza must we buy to show people how much they mean to us? These gestures are nice, but they are transparent to our people—we must be genuine in our care for our teams. Leaders exist at all levels, are both formal and informal roles, and the best ones are those that invest in their people—because their people invest in them. They see through us just as inmates do, and why shouldn’t they? They have honed their senses out in the world and the housing units, and we should know better than to try and lie to them, ignore their questions, or fail to embrace reality.

Max De Pree, an American businessman and prolific writer on leadership principles, said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” We define reality—what the mission is. Do we just want not to be hassled or sued? Or do we want to improve? To be more efficient? To make positive change? Next, we serve. We are to strive daily to make those in our charge lives’ easier—we never lose sight that leadership demands we work for them, not them for us. We say thank you. And we have to mean it. They know it when we don’t.

Morale is the symptom, positive or negative, of more influential things in an organization. You cannot stop turnover with a pinball machine in the break room, casual Fridays, or any number of pizza parties. The men and women that look up to you can see through the superfluous fix-all—what they respond to is a leader that is engaging, dynamic, and that cares about them and what they do.

It can be hard to admit that the “issues facing today’s jails” are not necessarily the ever-compounding problems of the world, the changing dynamics of the workforce, and other external factors—the true issues with today’s jails are us. When we fail to plan and adapt to these changes, when we fail to equip our future leaders to advance our profession, and then we lose sight of the most important thing in our jails—our people.

We have to do the hard part. Take the time to know and care for your people. Get to know them, their desires, and their ideas. I promise you will learn a great deal about your facility you never knew. In all things, be honest with them about everything. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what you do. It is impossible to lead without knowing who you really are and what you stand for. Accomplish that, take care of your people, and then you can order the pizza.

Stinchcomb, J. B., & Leip, L. A. 
(2013). Expanding the Literature on Job Satisfaction in Corrections: A National Study of Jail Employees. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 40(11), 1209–1227. 10.1177/0093854813489667

Captain–Support Services Division Middle River Regional Jail Staunton, Virginia
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