The Difference Between Supervisor and Leader


The Difference Between Supervisor and Leader

We hear about leadership all the time. Supervisors get sent to leadership seminars for weeks on end. In business schools, there are numerous courses teaching you how to be a leader. When we get out into the real world of corporate business or public employment everything works against you becoming a true leader.

My son works for a large corporate retail chain. Store leaders are tasked with increasing or maintaining productivity but the tools they need for the job are deliberately restricted for fear of the employees taking them to court.

Instead of the company showing the managers how to properly do their job they have the managers afraid to do their job. Store managers hide in their little offices pressuring their assistant managers and shift leaders to take the lead. This is not being a leader merely a supervisor

The different layers of management spend much of their time covering their own butts than leading. Corporate policy supports that behavior. The same happens in many police departments.

A supervisor works to cover his ass. A leader says to hell with covering my ass let’s get the job done. Sometimes that means you have to say, “Get off your ass and get to work.” Before a supervisor can expect that to be effective, he should do his homework and know the job. If the job is stocking shelves, he’d better know how to properly do that. If it’s getting guns off the street, he’d better know how.

weapons arsenal
Weapons arsenal seized by police. (Tewksbury Police)

Those working under his responsibility had better know the supervisor can do the job. He doesn’t need to be the best but if he tells you how to do something, he should have an idea that it is possible.

A leader has earned trust and loyalty. He does that by showing the same towards those he supervises. Being unapproachable does not help. Sometimes the leader has to say to hell with the corporate policy and repercussions and do what’s right.

My son told me about an incident where a sales clerk had been deliberately struck by a customer. The store manager instructed the customer to leave and never come back. The employee wanted to call the police, but the manager advised against it.

We now have district and states attorneys who have made statements that they will not prosecute for resisting arrest. They are trying to cover their asses with voters. That is not leadership. They’re willing to discipline but fail to protect the employees who work for them.

The corporate world is slow to prosecute criminals and yet they love to tell their employees they have their back. Police departments and prosecutors sound just like them. Both toss the employee under the bus without a second thought.

The leader steps up and says, “I have your back,” and then actually has it. That doesn’t mean covering up wrongdoing it means ensuring nothing rolls back downhill on his officers. He uses his experience to make sure the officer’s reports are properly done. He makes sure the proper charges are filed in an arrest. He makes sure the officers complete all the BS rules and regs the departments insist upon today. He makes sure his officers have the direction, training and tools to do the job. If the officers did a very good job, he submits them for the proper awards. If he sees the officers starting to take shortcuts or slacking, he steps up and lets them know they need to change their ways.

political propaganda

In the military, an officer in charge of troops doesn’t eat or sleep until his troops have eaten and rested. In the police departments, a good leader knows if one of his officers needs some help, financially or emotionally. He then steers the officer to the assistance needed.

An officer with a sick kid at home might need a shoulder or an ear for support. One with a drinking problem or financial trouble might not know where to go for help. If a sergeant helps just a little, they are showing signs of leadership. A happy, well fed, well rested, sober officer makes better decisions. They’ll also follow their leader into a firestorm.

100 yards
(Photo courtesy SPC Aristide Lavey)

You’ve all seen supervisors and leaders. You’ve seen what makes them great. Leaders don’t care how management feels about them (within reason) and supervisors only care how management feels about them.

I’ve seen officers with no more rank than anyone else fill the leadership role. Fellow officers go to them for advice on an arrest or problem with the department. It comes naturally to these officers. If we are fortunate, they get promoted. I’ve also seen supervisors learn how to become leaders because either they felt it was the right thing to do or a leader took them aside and explained the difference. It will never come as easy for them, but they can still do a good job.

Look at your department. Do you work for supervisors or leaders? If you have leaders, you owe them your loyalty and support. They can’t help you if you don’t help them.

If you have rank, evaluate yourself. If you want to be a leader then become one. If you want to be a supervisor, then get out of any leadership role.

I refer to everyone one as him or he, in this article, out of convenience. I’ve had the pleasure of working for several great female leaders in my career.

In the meantime, have a safe and happy Christmas season.

Stay safe, run low and zigzag.

– Robert Weisskopf (Lt. ret.)

Editor’s note: You can read all of Robert Weisskopf’s articles at and find all his books on Amazon at

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