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Leadership for the 21st century - A human approach, Part I
By Gene Atherton, NLECTC - Rocky Mountain - Institutions Program Manager, and Jason Heaton
Published: 10/01/2007

Bright arrow Editor’s Note: In part one of this three-part series, corrections veterans Gene Atherton and Jason Heaton discuss their theories behind the qualities that should exist in effective leaders. The series continues over the next two weeks to discuss various characteristics of leadership.

Throughout our careers in corrections we have been students of the kinds of behavior that make the best, most effective leaders. During our experience with correctional leadership training over the years, we have been exposed to a large number of senior role models and important information on leadership from places such as the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the National Institute of Corrections. Further, we observed the behavior of persons we have admired most as leaders in our individual work environments.

Driven by an ongoing curiosity about what works best, the fundamental question we have always asked is, “What common threads run through all these examples of excellence?” In directly questioning many of those leaders, we found that they also were mindful of what seemed to work best for them and they, also, looked to others.

They too had developed themselves over their career by studying the successes of others. This article will describe our version of the best characteristics of leadership – the characteristics that are need for success in the 21st century. We believe they are basically human characteristics.

Margaret Wheatley said, “As we rethink about what we know about knowledge and how we handle the challenge of knowledge in organizations, our most important work is to pay attention to what we always want to ignore: the human dimension(1)”.

Several years ago corrections came out of the dark ages by formalizing employee job requirements and supervisory/subordinate relationships. However, we think that in many correctional jurisdictions that is where the process ended. Being a contemporary leader supporting the highest level of performance of the organization requires character that forges high quality human relationships in the broadest possible sense. The following characteristics are from our experience about what works, what we have seen from others “in the trenches,” and what publications of other experiences have offered.

Willingness to suspend belief systems – being receptive to new and creative ideas

As we become leaders in any organization it is usually, not always, a process of years of personal and professional development. It typically includes a process of competitiveness where some are selected to be promoted and some are not. Over time all of these processes cause individuals to develop their own unique agendas that they promote at each opportunity. In some ways individuals gird themselves with a sort of armor that gains them acceptance, respect, and success in their professional circles.

It is a natural process that also colors how leaders see the world and how they listen to others. It is their personal paradigm. It is their job to know things that work. For us, it was always safety and security of staff, inmates, and the community first. We both sharpened our perspective and pursued such issues at every opportunity according to our agenda.

Other agendas may be preventing unlawful discrimination, rigid application of rules, staff ethics, or the promotion of the health services mission. These agendas are really assets that everyone contributes with knowledge and expertise. On the other hand, these agendas can also limit vision and the ability to hear new and creative ideas. This overall effect can limit quality relationships with others.

It is important for leaders not to be unreasonably stuck within their own agendas. It is important to understand these agendas exist and strongly influence leadership behavior. It is important for leaders to exercise enough control to periodically suspend their personal agendas enough to fully listen to and welcome others to the process. It was part of the answer to the phenomenal success of ending apartheid in South Africa(2), and is a major characteristic of leaders in every successful correctional organization. This is entirely a human characteristic.

Managing and coaching staff challenges

Good leaders forge human relationships with co-workers by understanding some of the challenges faced by staff, and by providing time and effort to assist.

It may be staff preparing themselves for promotional examinations. Very often helpful ideas give staff greater confidence and skill. Further, providing helpful ideas can help leaders shape concepts of excellence for future leaders. The examination process can cause staff to thoroughly examine the mission of the organization and the importance and nature of the supervisory role.

This may be the first time for subordinates to clearly articulate these concepts. The experience may take the form of leaders assisting staff in decisions concerning professional development. Whether staff are thinking about what to expect by participating on a special task force, or what training opportunities to select, leaders can often listen and give advice to help staff make good decisions.

The experience also may be leaders assisting staff during times of difficult staff management challenge. As staff performance issues arise, leadership should be an important source of support and guidance as the issues emerge, before they progress to higher levels of the organization. Finally, should leaders be stuck on a particularly difficult problem, it is always productive to involve subordinate staff in the problem solving process. All of these processes make for a strong working relationship between supervisors and subordinates. Those activities help foster a foundation of relationships that are important to building the organizational culture. These experiences require a purely human approach to staff relationships.

Lifestyle – Long Term success/contributions

“In the last several years, we have observed leaders experiencing power stress day after day, fighting fire after fire-and then scraping themselves of the floor each evening. They go from occasional episodes of power-related stress to almost daily experiences of it. Ultimately this leads to a form of chronic stress(3)”. Many leaders do not sufficiently recover in order to renew their strengths and mental attitude, leading into a downward spiral of burnout and eventual dysfunction. The dysfunction often includes an abandonment of the very behavior that would lead to success. Leaders tend to sacrifice themselves. The unfortunate myth is that the sacrifice is a benefit to the organization.

Editor’s Note: Next week, Heaton and Atherton continue to discuss attributes of successful leaders like listening, upbeat attitude and sensitivity.

Jason Heaton is the senior warden for the “80 John” Wallace and Dick Ware Units located in Colorado City, and the W3 Work Camp located in San Angelo.

He began his career with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as a CO in 1988 and has worked from one side of Texas to the other, along with a one-year assignment in Washington D.C. as a Correctional Program Specialist for the National Institute of Corrections. Through his work, he became interested in helping develop the future leaders of the 21st century. Heaton believes that success as a leader depends on investments and relationships with staff. He also believes that leaders have to make the time and take the opportunity to develop those individual relationships in order to make the entire organization successful.

Gene Atherton is in his 30th year of service in the criminal justice field. He has recently contracted to serve as the Institutions Program Manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center.

He served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections. From 1992 to 1997 he was a Security Specialist for the CODOC where his many accomplishments included developing security and emergency management policy; designing new prisons; establishing staffing analysis; and creating a system for insuring standards in security technology. In 1997, he was Warden at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, and then became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004.

Atherton is currently President of Correctional Consulting Services Group based in Florence, Colorado. For the last fifteen years Mr. Atherton has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections on a variety of topics, and co-authored Use of Force –Current Practice and Policy, Supermax Prisons: Beyond the RockM, Guidelines for the Development of a Security Program, Third Edition, and The Evolution and Development of Security Technology.

End Notes:

1 - Finding Our Way – Leadership for Uncertain Times, Margaret J. Wheatley, 2005, Barrett-Kohler, Inc., San Francisco, California, page 148.
2 - SOLVING TOUGH PROBLEMS – An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities, Adam Kahane, 2004, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
3 - RESONANT LEADERSHIP, Boyatzis and Mckee, 2005, Harvard Business School Press, page 7

Other articles by Atherton and Heaton


  1. Warden Hood on 09/27/2007:

    I enjoyed reading "Leadership for the 21st Century" by Atherton and Heaton. Today's challenge for prison leaders is to ensure that taxpayers are getting a strong investment in their return in corrections. By applying effective leadership tools as mentioned in this article, the public will observe safer communities and better managed correctional facilities. I had the honor to hear Gene Atherton present leadership topics on several occassions. He can teach leadership because he has been a leader. He knows in the highest sense, leadership is integrity. Someone once said, "The qualities of leadership are universal: they are found in the poor and the rich, the humble and the proud, the common man, and the brilliant thinker. But wherever they are found leadership makes things happen." Hopefully all correctional professionals will read and apply this article .... and make things happen. Robert A. Hood Warden (ret.) United States Penitentiary "Supermax" Florence, CO. [Currently National Security Specialist for GE Homeland Protection] robert.hood@ge.com

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