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Active supervision challenge: Courage

Supervisory courage is the skill of dealing with situations and people that most human beings would consider to be challenging


The two most common situations where active supervisors need to use courage are telling people what they need to hear and making difficult decisions.

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Hello everybody, Coach Paul here. Congratulations on making it to the fifth month of our active supervision challenge. Current events in law enforcement are demonstrating the critical need for front-line leaders to develop and use their active supervision skills.

For those of you new to this series, which debuted on Police1 in January, I am in the process of describing the 10 skills of active supervision. I define active supervision as the continual and consistent enforcement of the rules of your organization.

In the previous three months, we have reviewed performance management, critical thinking and communication. This month, we are looking at the skill of courage. I’ll define courage, discuss the two most common situations when active supervisors need to use courage, describe the steps in developing your supervisory courage, and wrap up with a few tips and techniques that will help you improve this skill.

What is courage?

When it comes to active supervision, courage is the skill of dealing with situations and people that most human beings would consider to be challenging.

In law enforcement, we are used to the concept of courage as it pertains to operations and tactics. We use courage daily as we deal with the dangerous and unknown circumstances that we face on the streets and in our custody facilities.

But most supervisors are surprised when I discuss with them the idea of courage being a supervisory skill. I often come across situations where I talk with supervisors who have no problem mustering the courage to take down wanted felons but then find themselves reluctant to give honest, critical feedback to one of their followers. If this sounds like you, take heart, supervisory courage is a skill you can develop.

When do you need supervisory courage?

Before we talk about developing your supervisory courage skills, let’s talk about the two most common situations where active supervisors need to use courage:

  1. When telling people what they need to hear;
  2. When making difficult decisions.

In the first instance, active supervisors use courage when telling people what they need to hear, even when those people don’t want to hear it.

You will find yourself needing to use this skill up, down and across the chain of command. Up the chain, you will use this skill when sharing bad news or differing opinions with the people you work for. Across the chain, you will use this skill when talking to your peers about things you notice they could be doing differently. And down the chain, you will use this skill when providing critical feedback and performance improvement directions to your followers.

The second most common situation that requires supervisory courage is when you must make difficult decisions.

You need courage in these situations because difficult decisions often result in you losing popularity points with your peers and followers. For example, one of the most difficult decisions I had to make as a supervisor was firing a friend of mine, on Christmas Eve, two weeks after he and his wife had their second child, because he flagrantly violated a policy that he had been warned repeatedly about. When I was presented with evidence about his violation, I agonized over the decision. In the end, I decided that even though it would probably cost me our friendship, the right choice in this instance was to terminate his employment. And I was right. My decision ended our friendship.

While most of your decisions won’t be as extreme as mine, you are going to need to use your supervisory courage and make hard choices that ultimately benefit your organizations and the communities you serve.

Developing supervisory courage

Now that we have discovered when we need to use our supervisory skills, let’s discuss how to develop them. Developing supervisory courage takes these three steps:

  1. Pay attention to what is happening around you. The first step in developing supervisory courage is training yourself to pay attention. Active supervisors are curious and attentive. They observe and listen to what people are doing and saying in their spheres of influence.
  2. Identify what you want to say. After paying attention, the second step in developing courage is taking the time to figure out what you want to communicate. You may notice an unsafe habit that one of your followers has begun doing in the field. Before talking to your follower about it, think about exactly what you want to communicate to the person.
  3. Considerately share your point of view. The third step in developing your supervisory courage is to use your voice to share your perspective. I use the word considerately here not just to mean being respectful, but also to take into consideration the person you are talking to and tailor your message accordingly. For example, one of your followers may not be used to constructive criticism, so if you have multiple things to share, space them out over several conversations.

Bonus content: Tips and techniques

As I conclude our discussion on courage, here are a few tips and techniques for those supervisors working in those special circumstances that I mentioned in article one of this series:

Working supervisor (splits your time between supervising and performing line-level duties) and small agency supervisor (supervises a small group of paid and volunteer followers spread out over a distance): When it comes to courage, the working and small agency supervisor have this in common, you often find yourself supervising people who you are close to and care about. Because of this, you will need to pay particular attention to the first aspect of supervisory courage: telling people what they need to hear. Admittedly, this may not be easy because of the personal relationships you have with your followers, but it is something that you must get comfortable doing.

Minority supervisor (supervises a group of followers who are different than you regarding race, gender, ethnicity and age): Your challenge will be the third step in developing courage, considerately sharing your point of view. You want to take the time to develop relationships of trust with your followers so that you learn the best ways to share constructive feedback with them and make difficult decisions concerning them.


Courage is a key skill for every active supervisor to develop. Remember, you are paid to have a perspective and an opinion about things. As a member of your department’s leadership team, it is important for you to get comfortable using your voice to tell people what they need to hear. Supervisory courage is an essential tool in the active supervisor’s toolkit. As you develop it, it will be easier to have those important conversations and make the right decisions when the time comes.

If you downloaded or printed the free active supervision checklist that we provided in the first article and have linked here for easy download, you can update it with this month’s information. Add three lines:

  • Pay attention to what is happening around you;
  • Identify what you want to say;
  • Considerately share your point of view.

Rate yourself again now that you have a better understanding of courage. Give yourself a + (plus sign) if you believe that you are good at the skill, a √ (checkmark) if you believe that you are ok at the skill, or a – (minus sign) if you believe you need to work on the skill. After, you will want to take some time to write down your plan for improving your supervisory courage.

If you have any questions about this skill or any of the 10 active supervision skills, submit your questions here. We will gather them up and answer them for you.

I’m Coach Paul, thank you again for taking the time to read this article. Keep your eyes, mind and heart open out there.

Police1 readers respond

We have a kind of book club at the University of Miami Police Department based on the active supervisor articles. We discuss them, share ideas and compare how we rate ourselves before and after. The team has all said it’s been a fun way to team build and learn or review supervisor skills. — Bill Gerlach, UMPD

Coach Paul Conor, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and management consultant who has been working with law enforcement leaders for more than 20 years. He is a former US Marine infantry officer, who led Marines in combat during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Coach Paul is an award-winning author, California state-certified Team Building Workshop facilitator and former university professor. He is also a reserve lieutenant with the Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department.