By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
My role as an educator is not simply to help students acquire entry-level jobs; it is to help create successful future leaders. I have always defined my success by the success of others whom I have worked with both in and out of the classroom.
On February 28, I had the privilege of serving as a community leader during a dinner reception for young men who aspire to become leaders. The leadership dinner, My Brother’s Keeper, brought together men from all different professions and was hosted by East Stroudsburg University (ESU). In addition to serving as a full-time faculty member with American Military University, I also serve as an adjunct professor within ESU’s Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminal Justice.
My role as a faculty member and local community leader was to answer questions and provide advice and guidance about navigating through one’s respective career. I discussed leadership characteristics that typically separate leaders from followers and can be applied to any profession. As an educator, one of my many research interests is in the area of leadership. There are certain leadership traits or characteristics that are foundational and therefore must be embraced, regardless of the profession.
[Related: Corrections Administrators Must Change their Leadership Style]
Since my education and work experience are within the criminal justice field, I naturally gravitated toward explaining how I first entered my profession and, essentially, what it took to continuously move through the ranks in my criminal justice career as well as my career in education, which I have aptly dubbed, “my second career.”
Leadership Advice for those Entering Criminal Justice
My graduate degree is in public administration. Through my coursework, I was introduced to a number of leadership theories and suggested practices to motivate and inspire employees. Here are some of the common themes discussed throughout the leadership literature, which I have embraced:
- Lead by Example. There are leaders and there are followers. If you want to be a leader, you must lead by example by always exhibiting the highest level of professionalism and ethical integrity. It’s also critical for leaders to stay true to their word. Always give 100 percent in everything you do.
- Remain Humble. Be comfortable in sharing the spotlight and crediting others when credit is due. Leaders can adopt all kinds of different practices like publicly praising individuals for good work. It’s a very simple gesture, but simply recognizing someone for a job well done can be very motivational and inspire other officers to excel.
[Related: Transformational Leadership Can Improve the Culture of Corrections]
- Communicate Openly and Effectively. An open-door policy in which everyone has a voice is empowering to employees. Be the type of leader who communicates openly, is transparent in relaying information, and remains open to the views of others.
- Keep Meetings Productive. There is nothing worse than holding a meeting for the sake of having a meeting. Meetings should be organized, have a clear agenda, and conversations should be concise and stay on topic. Lengthy meetings are counterproductive. Good leaders respect everyone’s time and conducts brief meetings only when necessary.
- Understand and Acknowledge Your Strengths and Weaknesses. There are areas in which I excel and areas where I do not. Good leaders know the difference and do not try to master all tasks.
- Find a Mentor. The best leaders know when they need help, and they know where to turn to in order to get it. Nobody can know everything, so find someone you trust for advice when things get tough. Having a good mentor can make all the difference in your success.
- Be Emotionally Aware. Good leaders must be emotionally intelligent. They need to be sensitive to different points of view and different backgrounds.
[Related: How Emotional Intelligence Benefits Correctional Officers]
- Be Aware of and Avoid the Common Pitfalls of Leadership. Being aware of common mistakes is often the first step toward not repeating them.
- Failing to clearly define goals. All communication must be clear and concise. Leaders must be approachable, particularly if employees are unsure or require additional information.
- Failing to Recognize Employee Accomplishments. Praise employees on their accomplishments. A pat on the back can go a long way in motivating employees.
- Not “Walking the Walk.” You must remember that you are a role model for your employees. Be present and take an interest in your employees and their day-to-day activities.
- Not Delegating. You must trust that your employees can and will carry out assigned tasks. Delegate tasks based on the strengths of the employees.
- Learn from the Past. To quote an adage, “those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” Lessons can be found everywhere.
- Never Stop Improving. This is undoubtedly my favorite piece of advice and one that I wholeheartedly embrace. Great leaders are constantly learning and always trying to improve themselves. There is always something you can work on or a new skill you can master. Be sure to keep your mind open to new ideas and possibilities and never be afraid of change.
How to be Successful in Your Career
Reach Out Beyond Your Field
Criminal justice is a unique profession because there are a number of other fields that must contribute to it such as sociology, psychology, social work, law, public administration, and countless others. After all, crime does not occur in a vacuum and is a larger issue that negatively impacts society’s overall well-being beyond the perpetrator, victim, and police. Therefore, it is important for those pursuing a career in law enforcement to maintain a wider perspective of how the criminal justice system interacts with other fields and professions. That is why I am a member of The American Society of Criminology, which is focused on the pursuit of scholarly, scientific, and professional knowledge concerning the measurement, etiology, consequences, prevention, control, and treatment of crime and delinquency.
Find a Mentor
As mentioned above, one piece of advice I always give to students and young professionals is to seek out mentors. Mentors who have experience in your desired field can provide career guidance and answer complex questions. The advice passed down from a mentor is simply invaluable, especially to someone just starting out in a field. A mentor is someone with the knowledge and experience the mentee respects and someone whose wisdom and knowledge can support a mentee’s professional growth and development. If you do not have any specific person in mind, locate organizations in your field and look to their leaders. LinkedIn is also a great resource for networking with today’s leaders.
Have a Sense of Humor
From my own experience, humor is one of the most underutilized leadership attributes. I am not suggesting that you become a stand-up comedian, but a sense of humor can go a long way. Individuals with a sense of humor tend to be more approachable and followers tend to be more attentive to someone who takes their job seriously, yet can make light of the good and bad. Individuals who have doom-and-gloom type of personality tend to instill fear and followers tend to lose confidence in their ability to lead.
Always Be Yourself
Another piece of personal advice that I have found to be advantageous is to always be yourself and remember “your roots.” The majority of leaders started at the bottom of the career ladder in an entry-level position. Remember where you came from. An elitist attitude, to me, exudes arrogance and a perceived disdain for those beneath them. Leaders should never belittle, demean, or otherwise discount the abilities of others. Leaders should always lift others up, not put them down.
In the words of Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker and bestselling author whom I admire, “A leader’s job is not to do the work for others, it’s to help others figure out how to do it themselves, to get things done, and to succeed beyond what they thought possible.”
About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro, assistant professor within the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University, is a 28-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. He has lectured in higher education for the past 15 years while also serving as an author, editor and subject matter expert.
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