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A human approach to leadership, Part III
By Gene Atherton, NLECTC - Rocky Mountain - Institutions Program Manager, and Jason Heaton
Published: 10/15/2007

Keyhole Editor’s Note: In part one of this three-part series, Gene Atherton and Jason Heaton discussed their theories behind the basic qualities that should exist in effective leaders. In part two, Atherton and Heaton discussed how much a leader’s ability to be sensitive, to listen, and to maintain an upbeat attitude can impact a team. In their final part, the duo provides more must-have qualities along with some final thoughts on effective leadership.

Words Are Reality – Successful Leaders Give Definition to Reality through 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. (11)”

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(12)”.

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(13)”, 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. We 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.(14)”

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 ask 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 wouldn’t we, through our relationships with others, 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:
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/

Other articles by Atherton and Heaton


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