The Fundamentals of Supervision: It Comes Down to Basics

The 5 traits of superior law enforcement supervisors

By Scott Hughes  |   May 11, 2016
Photo Courtesy Georgetown (Texas) PD

Last month I wrote an article entitled “Remember Where You Came From.” Not to brag, but that article generated more than 75,000 views on Facebook and dozens of comments from readers. After reading the comments and emails I decided to create a snapshot of what I believe makes an effective supervisor. While this is certainly not an all-inclusive list, I hope it will serve as a reminder to those in supervision ranks (or those with aspirations of becoming a supervisor) just what it takes to effectively lead and gain respect from your subordinates.

Supervisor’s Basics

Be there for your employees: Some supervisors spend an extraordinary amount of time behind the desk or on station. While there are certainly going to be situations that force you inside, you need to make a valiant effort to be on the street. If you are not assisting your officers on traffic stops, helping write reports, or directing traffic at a crash, make an effort to start doing it. Now. Nothing says, “I got your back,” like being visible and helpful out in the field. Besides, it’s tough to effectively evaluate an employee if you never see them working.

I had a conversation last week with a well-respected chief during a state conference about this very topic. He said, “With all the demands placed on me administratively, it’s sometimes tough to get out there with my troops, but I have to make it a priority. The time spent on the street, even if just for a few hours, goes a long way in gaining respect and showing them I care.”

It also keeps you in touch with the realities your officers face every day.

Don’t get in the way: Many times when a ranking officer pulls up at the scene the first thought among patrol officers is: “OH GREAT! Sgt. Clueless is going to screw this up!”

As I travel the country teaching I’m amazed at how many ranking officers neglect to attend Street Survival and the many other Calibre Press courses. Perhaps they feel they don’t need it? (Unfortunate considering the number of videos we show depicting errors involving supervisors).

Don’t be the supervisor that officers “fear” when your squad car pulls up. Be that corporal, sergeant, lieutenant or chief that gets them excited! Ask them: “What do you need?” Don’t hinder their performance by getting in their way. Instead, stand alongside them and assist as needed.

Bottom line: Trust your people!

Show them you know: Similar to not getting in the way, you have to understand and know the job. Not only do you need to know the job, you need to know it better than your personnel. I’ll take it one step further: You need to show them you know the job!

This can be demonstrated by following the advice given in points one and two, above. There’s really no excuse for not being up-to-date on the latest and greatest in law enforcement. Signing up for and visiting each day before roll call will demonstrate that you are aware of what’s going on in the world of law enforcement. Encourage your officers to do the same.

Remember that they (your officers) are going to be looking up to you for advice and guidance. We all know of supervisors who are “respected” for the position but not as an individual. The conversations in the parking lots sound something like this: “Nobody respects Sgt. Fife, we only tolerate him because of those stripes on his sleeve … He’s got no business holding rank.”

This is an unfortunate situation because some of them are undoubtedly good people. Don’t lose their respect.

I had the luxury of working for a lieutenant whom I will call Dave (because that’s his name). When he worked, people listened. Not because he was demanding or belittling, but because people respected him for his knowledge of the job. He shared his knowledge, led by example, and would always “walk the walk.” He was the type of supervisor that officers, and myself, wanted to mimic. (I’m a chief now, and I still wish I was able to mirror some of Dave’s leadership style).

Remember: When you’re exposed to an incredible leader, you remember it!

Praise, praise, praise: Want to motivate your employees to perform at an exceptional level? Praise them in front of others! Especially other cops! The number one intrinsic motivator with people is positive recognition. When was the last time your boss recognized your performance? How did it make you feel?

Phrases such as: “great job,” “good arrest,” and “nice work” go a long way with motivating your employees and gaining respect with your personnel.  It doesn’t take much, just a little effort on your part.

Criticize in private: Opposite of praising in public is criticizing in private. I believe that one of the worst things that you can do as a leader is criticize your employees in front of others. (A close second is talking behind your employees back with other non-supervisory personnel).

When you need to address someone’s performance, always try to do so privately. I recommend using a neutral location, such as a parking lot, gas station, or coffee shop. Delivering tough criticism is, well … tough. Therefore having these tough conversations outside of the police department walls is preferred. If you want to see somebody shut down, just dress them down in front of others. Unfortunately we have all seen supervisors use this outdated style for no other means than to inflate their own egos. Again: Unless the situation is critical, criticism should be handled in private.


There was nothing mentioned in this article that was earth shattering. In fact most of this you have probably heard before. The vast majority of law enforcement training boils down to the fundamentals. So remember the basics and strive to be the most effective supervisor and leader you can be!

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Scott Hughes
Chief Hughes holds a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership from the University of Charleston and is a graduate of The Supervisor Training and Education program as well as The Police Executive Leadership College. Scott is also a graduate of the 133rd FBI-LEEDA Command Institute and is a certified Law Enforcement Executive (CLEE). Chief Hughes is an active member of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police where he serves on the education committee.