Role of the First Line Supervisor: An Interview with Dr. Jeff Fox, PhD


The manager’s job has never been an easy one. But management and leadership for public sector agencies can be particularly fraught with challenges. And some might say that the stakes have never been higher.

Unable to keep up with private sector benefits packages or pay scales, the public sector often losing out in top talent bidding wars – particularly in anything involving IT or Cyber Security.

Add to this, Gallup reports that as a whole, US Employee Engagement – the metric defined as “the emotional commitment an employee has to the organization and its goals” and is often seen as a critical predictor of organizational performance and outcomes – remains dismally low.  The research firm found 71% of all US state and local employees are not engaged at work. Given that state and local budgets total $1.7T annually (or approximately 11% of the US GDP) that means public sector employee disengagement is costing their agencies about $100B each year — and that’s a conservative estimate. Not good news for organizations that are already feeling the budgetary pinches.

But let’s add one more statistic to that mix: Managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. In fact, half of all employees say they left their jobs because of their manager. Certainly, other things also factor in the decision to leave an employer: Salary, job stability, work-life balance, flexibiility, as well as the ability to do what they do best all contribute to an employee’s choice to stay or leave. But management is a significant factor in any employee’s decision to accept that headhunter’s call or answer that LinkedIn recruiting email.

That means your organization’s frontline managers aren’t just important. They’re carrying the weight of your organization’s ability to accomplish its goals almost entirely on their shoulders.


Join webinar presenter, Dr. Jeff Fox, PhD, as he discusses:

  • leadership styles, communication skills, and decision-making on the effective performance of followers.
  • the relationships between the leader and follower: challenging; inspiring; enabling; modeling, and encouraging,
  • and their influence on the organizations that employ both the leaders and the followers.


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Your webinar is specifically about the role of a first line supervisor. Let’s start with some basics: what do you mean when you say, “first line supervisor?” Why is this such a critical role to examine in organizations? 

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD:  The first line supervisor is the employee in the position right above the line workers or employees. Often, they might hold position titles such as corporal, sergeant, supervisor, lead, lieutenant in some cases, and so on. They perform daily supervision and interact with line employees on an up close, personal, and routine basis. They hold a position which carries with it authority, responsibility, and accountability. They need to have technical skills, but also great human skills along with some conceptual skills in order to see and sell, if you will, the big picture.  

The first line supervisor should communicate and demonstrate the values, standards, and culture of the organization to the men and women under his or her supervision. They guide the Department’s ethos! They wear many hats: trainer, coach, counselor, mentor, and role model.  They are or should be an analyzer, pathfinder, goal setter, cheerleader, persuader, and stabilizer.  If the first line supervisors fail to do their job it is likely the organization will fail as well in the long run.



JCH: Some people think good managers are “born:” You are either a good manager, meant to be a manager – or you’re not. What is your take on this belief?

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD:  This is the age-old question, isn’t it. Is it nature or nurture. It might be both actually. I think some people have traits or personalities that cause people to gravitate toward them and want to emulate their behavior. Hopefully, the behavior is worthy of emulation! Some people just have charisma. However, this can be a good or bad thing. It really depends on what a person does with such gifts. I have seen charismatic managers who were actually poor at their job. Some of these people were all talk and no action or once you got past the ability to be charming the substance did not go deep. Conversely, I have seen managers who lacked the charm yet were very good at what they did.  You cannot judge a book by its cover. For some people, it takes a lot of work to become a good manager. It is easy to talk the talk but another thing to walk the walk.  I do believe a person can learn to become a great manager. They must be willing to work hard and possibly make some significant changes in some cases.


JCH:  In your experience, what are the biggest misconceptions that people have about becoming a manager or “the boss”?

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD:  It is important to discuss two terms here. One might be a manager or a leader, or hopefully both. Holding a supervisory position doesn’t make one either actually. I can strap horns to my head but that doesn’t make me a bull, does it? Leaders work on the system. Managers work within the system. Leaders do the right thing. Managers do things right. Ideally one should be both a leader and a manager. I see a great void of leadership everywhere I look. Most people are managers. It is safer actually.

Some people want to be managers for the wrong reasons. It is not easier to be a manager or at least it should not be. It should be more than just a pay raise. It should be more than just wanting to have power over other people. I think there might be a little of ‘the-grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-fence”  mentality.  I think it is good for employees to get to walk in the manager’s shoes from time to time so they can see what the position really entails and how hard it can be. It also lets them know if they want to pursue such a position. Great leaders are preparing those below them to take their position at some point.





JCH: What do you think are the most important skills a great first line manager should have?

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD: There are so many great skills one can and should have. Here are some of them.  Drive and ambition. The desire to lead and influence others. Honesty and integrity. Self-confidence. Intelligence. In-depth technical knowledge related to the area of responsibility. Courage. Compassion. Technical, human, and conceptual skills. Communication ability both written and verbal.

These are but some of the skills one needs to be a great leader and manager. These skills can be learned but it takes time, a great deal of self-awareness, and practice. With these skills, one must ensure they are balanced and never in excess or defect. For example, drive and ambition are great but never at the costs of values or ethics. Never when it is done by stepping on others.



JCH: You were a police officer and a leader for many years. What helped to shape your own ideas about management and leadership? What do you hope your direct reports gained from working with you?

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD:  The biggest thing that helped me shape my thoughts about leadership and management was, without a doubt, seeing and being impacted by poor leaders or managers.

I learned much more about what not to do this way.

Besides this, I took every opportunity to learn in every way possible how to be the best leader and manager I could be and have never stopped doing this not even for one day or one minute. I did this and still do it by reading, watching, listening, reflecting, and praying. I look for the best practices, ideas, and ways of doing things all the time. I study great leaders. I study great acts of leadership. I am never satisfied with myself and seek self-improvement daily. 

Some of my employees got me and others didn’t. Reputation precedes you most of the time. Often this can be false. I was a tough leader who set high expectations. I wanted my people to be the best not for me so much as for themselves and those they served. I always wanted the best for them. I cared about every one of them even those who did not like me. I always acted out of the correct principles and never out of anger or with ill will. I wanted each of my employees to recognize their full potential. We had duties and responsibilities to carry out and I took those very seriously. They knew I would defend them when right, and I would discipline when wrong but always with kindness and respect. I was by the book but that was purposeful so everyone was treated fairly and everyone always knew where I stood and where they stood. While I was by the book, I applied common sense and discretion. Small mistake equaled small correction. Big mistake equaled bigger correction. I always considered past performance and whether the mistake was of the mind or heart. In many cases, in public service, we have a great duty we owe to the public. I understood that some people only wanted to do what they had to and as long as they did their job that was okay, but I wanted them to strive for more. I was also preparing each of them for the tough times as well as the good times. I wanted them to be the best so they could be for their own benefit as well. Some people look to get rid of the weakest link in the chain. My goal was to strengthen that link as much as possible. Sometimes the link did have to be removed but that was a last resort.    



JCH: The importance and role of first line managers in the justice arena isn’t limited to just law enforcement agencies. While a large number of our readers and subscribers are in law enforcement, we have representation from all parts of the justice arena. Can you share some specifics of what different types of justice professionals or first responders will gain by attending your webinar? What skills or new knowledge will they gain that they can immediately use the next day on the job or for planning in their careers? 

Dr. Jeff Fox PhD:  I hope to impart knowledge that can either reinforce current behaviors or maybe change behaviors if needed for any first line supervisor. There might be those in the audience who wish to become supervisors. Hopefully, they will find nuggets of information they can use. Hopefully, everyone carries an invisible tool box with them daily. I hope to provide them tools they can put in their tool box. One tool we all need is a mirror. We need to look in the mirror daily and examine ourselves. What are we doing right or wrong? What can I do differently today? How can I make a positive difference in my employees’ lives or even the lives of the people we serve? That is what it is all about really making a positive difference. If there is only room for one extra tool in their toolbox I hope they will put this in there. Care about your people. Make sure they know you care about them. Always have their best interest at heart. This does not mean we don’t do our jobs as supervisors. It means exactly the opposite. Do the right thing and do it right.

To watch “Role of the First Line Supervisor” click here.


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