So, You Want to Be a Supervisor?

Here are 30 suggestions you can adopt so you’ll be a more effective manager in campus law enforcement and security.

So, You Want to Be a Supervisor?

Relationships with Subordinates

  1. You have the authority to command, but people want explanations. Influence others. This is the information age. When time and circumstances permit, tell people why you are doing something or asking them to do something. Harkening back to your childhood, remember when you asked you dad “why?” about something and he said “because I am your father, and I said so.” You may have complied, but you weren’t happy about being treated like a child.
  2. Spend time with the troops and look out for them. Spending time with the troops does several positive things. It shows you care, it keeps your own skills sharp, it’s a great source of information and it creates a team. On occasion, you will need to stand up for your people and maybe even take a few shots. This is why leaders wear red capes.
  3. Establish expectations early and enforce them consistently. Tell your troops what’s important to you and your standards so they understand what’s permissible and what’s not. If someone fails to meet them, intervene early and facilitate a course correction. Postponing criticism or discipline rarely makes the problem go away, and once you allow substandard behavior to persist, correcting it in others becomes impossible.
  4. Praise in public but criticize in private. Publicly acknowledge exemplary behavior. However, when you need to crack the whip, remember to do it in private. There is a saying that six months from now, people won’t remember what you said but how you treated them. This is true. Animosities generated by arrogance are long-lived.
  5. Create a team (“we” instead of “I”). Keep your team informed and develop in them a sense of responsibility. Multiple people, working together, bring multiple perspectives that will improve performance and decision-making. Share your vision, and lead your team in that direction.
  6. There is a difference between being a friend and friendly. Friendship generates bias, and bias undermines fairness and consistency. Always be friendly and courteous, but remember that you’re at work, not a social function. The mission comes first; it’s more important than your sentiment of friendship.
  7. Different people have different needs and expectations. Motivate them differently. Young officers just starting out will be motivated by overtime, for instance. Many older officers, whose kids are grown, will resent the requirement to work OT. In short, treat all fairly but not necessarily the same.
  8. Trust your subordinates. The higher you go, peripheral and non-operational tasks will consume your time, and you will begin to lose proficiency in basic skills. You will have the authority to make decisions but not always the expertise; not only because you’ve lost your edge but also because what you remember may now be obsolete. If you have developed a good team, you can trust and rely on your subordinates.
  9. Nobody wants to criticize the boss. Search out bad news; otherwise, you will not have all the facts and perspectives to make good decisions. If you want to encourage timely and full information sharing, be open to criticism and don’t kill the messenger of bad tidings. Additionally, keep your supervisor advised of problems on your home front. (See Rule 27.)
  10. Give your team the independence to accomplish their mission, but keep an eye on things. Your people may make every mistake once because that’s how they learn. When they need your help, they will ask for it but until then, get out of their way. They will appreciate your confidence in them. Your goal is to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice.

Relationships Within the Organization

  1. Your goals, those of your officers, those of the department and those of the community you serve may be different, even mutually exclusive. Further, they may vary over time. Your law enforcement agency does not exist in a vacuum. You have to deal with PIOs, IT, legal, public works, the chief executive’s office, etc. Your specific goals will not always coincide with those of your non-law enforcement colleagues. Further, their goals (and yours) are likely to change in different phases of a crisis (i.e., prevention, response, mitigation and recovery). A strong leader will not only focus on his or her goals; he or she will find ways to integrate the goals of all concerned to advance the overall goals of the organization.
  2. The same action will be interpreted differently by others. Words and non-verbal cues may mean different things to different people, based on their race, gender, age, culture, religion, nation of origin, etc. Don’t assume everyone views things the same way you do. This assumption robs you of all the information you need to make many decisions.
  3. Document everything. In general, if it isn’t written down, it never happened. On the other hand, sometimes it’s better to communicate orally and not commit something to writing. A good supervisor will learn to know when to do each.
  4. Control your ego. If you let your ego get in the way and make it about you, then every interaction becomes a contest, with a winner and a loser. Who wants to be the loser? Nobody! Don’t take yourself too seriously. If you do, you will generate resentment and undermine future support from and loyalty of others.
  5. You owe your people loyalty, but your job is to explain command’s positions and rationales, as well as garner support. What command wants and what officers want and the best way to obtain these goals may diverge on occasion. It is your job to explain the rationale for command decisions and ensure compliance. This will not always be popular or easy, which is why supervision is called work. At times, you will think a command decision is ill-considered. Remember: with your troops, your decision is not your own. You are a cheerleader and a facilitator. By all means question decisions you consider bad, but do it up the chain and in private.
  6. Don’t be the highest ranking person with a secret. Keep your boss informed, especially about things that can come back to haunt you or your agency.
  7. The world is not black and white; it is 50 shades of blue. Internal agency goals, community goals, emotions, and competing responsibilities to the troops and command may conflict; and often do. You must be able to discern priority goals, goals you can affect, the resources needed to achieve them, associated consequences of not addressing them, etc.
  8. Your time is not your own. Competence is its own punishment. The better you perform, the more will be asked of you, and this will divert your attention from what you consider priority tasks. You must delegate (and work longer hours)!
  9. You need some money in the bank. As you achieve more successes, your reputation as a leader who gets things done, your loyalty and confidence by your superiors will accrue, like money in the bank. A fat savings account is nice, but sometimes, you will have to make a withdrawal to get something you really need.

Affect Positive Change as a Supervisor

As Casey Stengel once said, “The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.” Stengel was a winner, and you can be too. Supervision isn’t easy, but what challenge is? Get out there and make a difference!


Daniel A. Dusseau is the chief of police for the Northern Virginia Community College Police Department, and Lt. John M. Weinstein, Ph.D., is commander of the NVCC PD Eastern District.

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