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Engagement in an Irish Prison

When my mentor and colleague in Global Leadership Development at Eli Lilly & Co, Dr. Laura Dorsey, told me that she was designing a leadership program that featured a visit to an Irish prison, I was dumbfounded.  Then she told me, “We’ll be there to learn about employee engagement.” I was doubly-dumbfounded!

I inherited the responsibility of program ownership for the Global Leadership Development Program (GLDP) from Laura. She had made the initial inquiries and research in Ireland, and now it was up to me to finish the design of the five-day program for 26 managers who were deemed high potential for senior management positions.  The premise of the program was for these leaders to examine leadership through diverse and powerful experiences — like the strategies researched by Chip and Dan Heath — and then build their own leadership practice. We used to preach, “Lead from who you are.” Three senior executives also participated in the program as mentors.

It was fall of 2007. We set up a half day of the program to leave our main conference space in Malahide, and venture into the Dublin city center to visit Mountjoy Prison. We were to tour the men’s prison, and after the tour, listen to a talk from the prison Governor (Warden in the USA), John Lonergan.

So on the fourth day of the program, on a Thursday morning, our group of 30 arrived at Mountjoy Prison. We went through heavy security clearance, and then entered a gloomy, stark, and dimly-lit building. I remember thinking “Nothing engaging about this place”. I confess that I had a little anxiety about touring the prison with the prison guards, and visiting some of the inmates in their cells.

During the tour, more than one security guard told us, “This is the best job that I‘ve ever had.”.  They spoke about the Governor with reverence.

We then divided into small groups to visit the inmates in their cells. We visited with Jimmy. To this day, I vividly recall Jimmy saying,  “This place is not so bad. I feel that I am putting my life back together here.”  We were rocked. Virtually all of the Lilly leaders in my program had people reporting to them. One of them told me, “These people are more engaged than mine, and my people are professionals who are paid very well… and not incarcerated!”.  “We’ve got to meet the leader of this place!”  “Who is this Governor John Lonergan?”

After the prison visit, we gathered in a conference room in the administrative wing, awaiting the arrival of John Lonergan. In walked this man of modest stature, with a joyful and gentle demeanor. As he started to speak about the importance of kindness,  I thought, “My God, Mr. Rogers has kin in Ireland!”. Mr Lonergan spoke of his values about people, how it’s usually the very poorest members of society who end up in prison, and his job was to create an environment where people could find a new and better path. It was clear that he cared very deeply about his employees and the inmates. Governor Lonergan had created a positive culture, with engaged prison guards, and hopeful inmates… in a prison!

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Our leaders learned valuable lessons about leading that day. That engaging employees is not so much about engagement surveys and free food in the cafeteria. It’s more linked to the values and character of the leader.  Values that seek to understand the systemic causes of dysfunction rather than just toss around blame, that expand the good in each person, and that create an environment where hope can emerge.  Character traits such as kindness and finding the good in each person, and courage to go against the tide (e.g., that prisons should be primarily punitive.)

John Lonergan retired in 2010 after serving 42 years in the Irish prison system. He was Governor of Mountjoy Prison for 26 of those years. He has written a book, The Governor, and is a staunch advocate of prison reform. You will get a strong sense of who he is and his principles in this 2014 TedXDublin talk.

William FanelliComment