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Leadership for the 21st century - A Human Approach
By Jason Heaton and Gene Atherton
Published: 10/08/2012

Bright arrow 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 ” (emphasis added). 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. I believe over time all of these process cause individuals to development 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 unreasonable 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 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 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 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 ”. 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.

Most organizations spend a great deal of time and expense in the development and preparation of leaders. Not only is it morally wrong, but it makes bad economic sense to have high performance, “pacesetting ”leaders when they are not likely to provide quality services over the long term. Leaders need to see their best, long term performance only possible through a balanced life of work and over all personal health. Unhealthy conditions for leaders are not only a bad choice for leaders at a personal level, I believe it negatively impacts the organization in a variety of ways. Such conditions prevent leaders from being directly involved in the maturing of the organization and from sharing the full extent of their potential to contribute.


Every successful leader is a good listener. When combined with the open ended questions described in Appreciative Inquiry , it is the single most valuable leadership characteristic we know.

Remember, when you are taught to be competitive, and must be good at it to get ahead in life and your profession, good listening skills are not highly valued. You are rewarded having the best answer and offering the best idea. Good leaders are typically very affable and accustomed to talking. As a result listening skills are not easily obtained.

Good listening skills open up whole new worlds and possibilities for the organization. Very often the new or most valuable information is withheld and not communicated well because people did not feel encouraged to share. Good listening can lead to long, uncomfortable silence, but soon someone will speak, and you may be hearing very valuable, and precious information for the first time. Such exchanges can be the basis of new relationships that are critical to the organization.

Successful Leaders Bring Contagious Energy and Upbeat Attitude to the Job

It is easy to lose track of how much subordinates draw or depend upon the attitude the leadership. “In this sense, leaders who pass along bad moods are simply bad for business – and those who help pass along good moods help drive a business’s success ”.

If you have been an energetic leader who enjoys having fun in the process of doing business, or have worked in the presence of such leadership, you may not know how important those emotions are until they are gone. Colin Powell said, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. The ripple effect of a leaders enthusiasm and optimism is awesome ” A leader with a smile and a positive spin on the day, week, or year, can make a enormous difference among subordinates and the overall organization. Corrections is an example of a work environment where that characteristic is essential for survival, and for making a high performance possible.

Successful Leaders are Sensitive to the Emotional Impact of their Behavior on Others.

“If they get everything else just right, if leaders fail in this primal task of driving emotions in the right direction, nothing they do will work as well as it could or should. ” It took eight years or so for employee X to elevate herself to the management team of an organization of several hundred employees. She was very proud to be at that level and attended our her first management team meeting. As the Warden went around the table asking for comments from individual managers, she brought up an issue and suggested some strategies to resolve. In front of the dozen or so team members, the Warden became very offensive in his response, raised his voice to a shouting level, and basically said she did not know what she was talking about. She had been warned by others of this treatment. It happened frequently, and others dreaded attending his meetings. She was embarrassed, and learned that the benefits of leadership were not to be expected from our official leader. She needed to somehow work differently in order to do her job. Does this sound familiar? How do you think this relationship between supervisors and subordinates affects the ability to achieve the mission?

The Executive Director spoke to a group of new employees, he didn’t mention anything about the importance of the mission, or the virtue of public service, or the career opportunities, instead he specifically stated that the new recruits were only there because they couldn’t find work elsewhere and that most of them would not last in corrections. That is the only thing staff remembered about the speech. The opportunity to inspire and recruit that discretionary investment in job performance was lost. In contrast, New Yorkers will never forget Mayor Giuliani’s courageous performance in leading New York City through its darkest days that began on September 11th . He never stopped reminding people of the positive spirit and resilience of the citizens of New York City. Whether under emergency conditions, leading a meeting or project effort, or having one on one conversation, successful leaders must never forget the emotional impact of their behavior on others. If leaders are not mindful, their conduct can distract attention from the mission of corrections. That condition is a basic element of failure where ever it is found in corrections. “Roughly 50 to 70% of how employees perceive their organization’s climate can be traced to the actions of one person: the leader. ”They should hold themselves accountable, and be held accountable to a high standard of conduct in area of emotional impact on others. If you care and are uncertain, be open to ask others. “How do you think I was perceived?” No matter what the circumstances, there is no valid reason to show disrespect in your relationships with others.

Words Are Reality – Successful Leaders Give Definition to Reality thru the Spoken Word.

It is our opinion that all successful organizations have high performing staff who are guided by a clearly defined, commonly held purpose. The purpose and all other informal rules are expressed in words. “Words, language, and metaphors are more than mere descriptions of reality. They are words that create worlds. ”

The providing opportunity for the correctional organizations to fully participate in understanding and expressing their purpose is a requirement of every successful correctional leader. “In this chaotic world, we need leaders. But we don’t need bosses. We need leaders to help us develop the clear identity that lights the dark moments of confusion. We need leaders to support us as we learn to live by our values. We need leaders to understand that we are best controlled by concepts that invite our participation, not policies and procedures that curtail our contribution ”.

Purpose clarification and sharing of knowledge is a natural product of employees being together and encouraged to dialogue and communicate. It is the leader’s responsibility to provide those opportunities and to foster the development of positive, trusting relationships. It is the leader’s responsibility to continue to communicate, to clarify that purpose as an ongoing process throughout each day, to walk and talk that purpose frequently at every level of the organization. It is the successful leader’s responsibility to identify all important stakeholders to the correctional organization, and to communicate the knowledge and purpose of the correctional organization to them at every opportunity.

Leader As Mediator

The role of mediator has always been one remembered as role created by a clause of an employment or union contract where someone is called in to address controversial issues. Sometimes it is voluntary. Sometimes it is required by contract or law. In that process the “mediator” would employ tools of the trade such as having an “integral vision, systems thinking, presence, inquiry, dialogue, bridging, innovation ”, judging willingness to make concessions and move to agreement, identifying issues, conflict resolution, and listening. It is the role of the mediator to be someone that acts on behalf of the whole, the mission and its relationship to the world.

We suggest that instead of each time a correctional organization has a problem that someone with mediation skills is provided to solve specific issues, contemporary leaders are persons who display those skills on continuous basis within the operation. We consider the skills of the mediator matter most in human relationships and to be an essential requirement to perform the task of leader in today’s correctional environment.

Successful Leaders Establish Performance Expectations and Parameters.

As a leader in human relationships with others, being successful does not mean you give up accountability and performance expectations to achieve a higher level of respect and comfort. I believe it is a commonly held belief that you cannot have both. In other words, you cannot be a nice guy or gal as a “leader” and have performance expectations and accountability. We remember the traditional leadership myth of “don’t get too close to your staff, you may be the one that has to impose discipline later on.” To often this advice was taken as a convenient reason not to have meaningful relationships with subordinate staff. It is one of the most dysfunctional pieces of advice we have ever heard. It is a myth. In his presentation on leadership, Colin Powell said, “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. ”

In fact, you can have expectations and accountability within healthy, supportive relationships. If someone is out of harmony with the rest, it is okay and essential to correct and discipline in the face of individual and group performance issues. This writing on leadership should never be interpreted as abandoning authority and responsibility in exchange for collaboration, and advocating an overly cumbersome processes. That is an exaggeration in another direction. Within this environment leadership may elect, at any time, to expedite and focus the organization, depending on the circumstances.


Leaders in corrections are only seen as successful when the entire organization is performing high levels. Therefore, success depends on investments in our relationships with staff. This is, to us, about effort and seizing those opportunities to develop others. We believe that great leaders have the ability to influence others through positive human relationships. If you listen to leaders you might hear them say, “I would love to spend more time talking and sharing my philosophies with staff”. However, what follows is usually, “my schedule will not allow it” or “I have too much on my plate”. The irony of this is that if we mentor and build those individual relationships, our plates will not be so full. If you could as yourself, as a leader, one question each day, it should be, “Have I positively impacted my staff in a way that made them feel better about their work performance and themselves?” Investing in our employees emotional bank account and spending time to individually develop them is the key to motivation. When an employee feels that they play an important role towards the mission, they will work diligently toward it. Let us offer another thought, if you have the commitment of your staff, because you built great relationships, you will reap extraordinary results. When we try to understand what motivates people, we can think back to our childhood, everything we have been taught is about winning or being the best. If this is true, why would we, through our relationships with other, provide the opportunity for all staff to fully invest themselves in the process.

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
1Finding 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.
4 PRIMAL LEADERSHIP-Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Goleman, Boyatzis, Mckee, Harvard Business School Press, 2002., page 72
5 The Thin Book of APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY, Sue Annis Hamm and, Thin Book Pulishing, 1996
6 PRIMAL LEADERSHIP – Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee, Harvard Business Press, 2002, page 14.
7 “A Leadership Primer”, Lesson #12, General Colin Powell, Chairman (Ret.) Joint Chiefs of Staff. http://www.blaisdell.com/powell/
8 PRIMAL LEADERSHIP – Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee, 2002,Harvard Business Press
8 Leadership, Rudolph W. Giuliani, 2002, Miramax Books /Hyperion, New York
10 PRIMAL LEADERSHIP – Realizing The Power of Emotional Intelligence, Golden, Boyatzis, and McKee, 2002, Harvard Business School., page 18.
11 The Power of Appreciative Inquiry – A Practical Guide to Positive Change , Diana Whitney & Amanda Trosten-Bloom.
12 LEADERSHIP and the NEW SCIENCE – Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, page 131, 2006, Margaret J. Wheatley, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, San Francisco.
13 LEADERSHIP THROUGH CONFLICT-How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, Mark Gerzon, Harvard Business School Press, 2006, page 52-58.
14 “A Leadership Primer”, Lesson #2, General Colin Powell, Chairman (Ret.) Joint Chiefs of Staff. http://www.blaisdell.com/powell/


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