The Influential Leader

Lessons on Change from Angola (the Prison, not the Country)


Every leader thinks his or her employees have some special reason to resist change. In one organization I worked with, the justification was long tenure: "You just can't change the behavior of 8,000 good ole boys who've been doing it one way for 27 years." In another, it was education: "I've got 450 PhDs who can intellectualize you into a coma." In one it was organizational trauma: "We'll be doing so much downsizing in coming months that no one will even pay attention—much less change."

I've heard it all.

Leader after leader lowers aspirations, believing employees have a highly evolved capacity to repel new ideas and habits.

For anyone who sympathizes with this modest view of influence, I invite you to join me on a trip to the toughest prison in the U.S.: Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola. For many of the 5,000 inmates, who are serving average sentences of 93 years, Angola will be their last residence. All are violent offenders: murderers, rapists, and armed robbers. Since most have no hope of parole, there is little incentive for pretensions of personal reformation. Which makes Angola a unique testing ground.

That is why I was so taken with what has happened at Angola every May for the past five years.

Breaking a Cycle

Statistics tell the broader story. Jack Eggar and Lyndon Azcuna refused to accept that a father's prison sentence meant a cursed future for his children. Studies show that the 2.2 million children of inmates in the U.S. are seven times more likely to end up in prison. Eggar, president and chief executive of the religious organization Awana, which serves some 12,000 churches in the U.S., and Azcuna, director of the Awana Lifeline ministry, theorized that the best way to give these kids a fair shot at life was not to work around the "father problem" but rather to work through it. Rather than compensate for a bad dad by offering kids resources or mentoring through other agencies, they posited that transforming hardened felons into attentive fathers would turn these men's influence from net negative to positive.

And the early evidence suggests they're right. More than two-thirds of caregivers report that the 1,500 children who have participated in Awana's faith-based program, Malachi Dads, are significantly better behaved as a result of engaging with their fathers. Many fathers similarly report that while they are still locked up, they feel much different about themselves as parents. They find a way to change their children's lives while serving life sentences.

Eggar and Azcuna have incorporated an abundant amount of social-science brilliance into their strategy. They have engaged all six of the sources of influence that our research and book Change Anything (Business Plus, 2011) show make change 10 times more likely.

1. Personal Motivation. Like all great influencers, Eggar and Azcuna engage the heart before addressing the mind. They help inmates reform via a purpose—their children. Malachi Dad's proposition is powerful: "You may be locked up, but you don't have to be locked out. You can stop the curse of the fathers from passing to your children." They suggest the best way to alter your children's destiny is to change yourself and become the father you never had. While the invitation is a bit awkward and even painful, hundreds rise to the challenge and find immense meaning in that difficult self-reflection, because they're doing it for their kids.

2. Personal Ability. Eggar and Azcuna know even profound motivation is worthless unless accompanied by ability. Most of us think change is all about motivation. If criminals wanted to change badly enough, they would. And we couldn't be more wrong. Just talk to these men and you'll quickly discover they're clueless about what it means to be a father. Few ever had one. Most were abandoned or abused, and those who weren't were mentored in felony by their father figures. For example, Malachi grad Keith Morse, who is in Angola for first-degree murder, met his father for the first time in Angola. Dad preceded him to prison by a decade.

Before fathers gets face-to-face contact with their children, Malachi Dads puts them through a rigorous 11-month training on fathering principles and skills. They participate in hands-on workshops. They work toward their GEDs. And by the time that first contact arrives, their capacity to relate to their children has expanded.

3. Social Motivation. Learning in Malachi Dads is a social process with lots of encouragement, accountability, and feedback. Dads are organized into "family groups" in which they hold discussions, read letters they write or receive from their kids, and learn new norms for their behavior. Accountability is strict: Skip a few sessions or otherwise slack off, and you're out. The group recitation of the "Malachi Dads Pledge" resets norms about fatherhood and reconnects individuals with the moral cause they've undertaken. It also leverages social support when these life-hardened men recite together the words: "As a Malachi Dad, I solemnly pledge to glorify God and build His Kingdom by prioritizing the raising of godly children, first in my family, then in the influencing of other men to do the same in theirs."

4. Social Ability. You can't pool ignorance, so peer tutoring from other inmates won't yield great results. Instead, Malachi Dads draws on mentoring from previous grads and hundreds of volunteer mentors from outside the prison.

5. Structural Motivation. Rewards help motivate the tough slog of the program. One reward graduates look forward to all year is the Returning Hearts Celebration—a full day to play, interact, and reconnect with their children in a well-supervised but remarkably free setting. It's the highlight of the year. And a big payoff for engagement.

6. Structural Ability. Like any good influence effort, Malachi Dads helps participants make bad behavior harder and good behavior easier by giving inmates cues, reminders, and tools in the form of books, charts, and self tests. The regularity of interaction with those who have similar aspirations also distances them from negative influences.

That's a rushed description of the details of the influence strategy at Angola—but it's all academic until you see it in flesh and blood. I defy you to remain a skeptic about the possibility of change after witnessing one of these days.

It's Returning Hearts Celebration day. After months of preparation, hundreds of inmates wait for buses to arrive. Daryl Waters, a muscle-bound, tattooed, 250-pound lifer serving a 95-year sentence for murder, helped prepare more than 1,000 pinewood blocks that fathers and kids will later shape into derby cars for the race at the end of the day. Three thousand hot dogs are waiting to be grilled. Four thousand hamburgers have been lovingly shaped. Chips, cookies, and colas serve as refreshments during the warm Louisiana day as these fathers take a shot at redefining their relationships with their children.

Waters is waiting nervously. His tormented life trained him to stand his ground in the most violent of confrontations. But nothing prepared him for the sweet vulnerability he feels as he waits to see his children. As the buses finally pull in, he drapes a towel over his head to shade his eyes. He watches one dad after another trot, then run, to embrace his children. His hands knead each other nervously. He's not sure whether his kids will actually show. And if they do, will they accept him? Will they count the minutes until they leave or enjoy him as he desperately hopes they will? His most potent fear is they'll stand him up and he'll have to wait another year to say what he's practiced saying for 11 months.

At last the bullhorn sounds. "Daryl Waters."

Intimate Conversations

He hasn't seen 15-year-old Dafius, 17-year-old Akenke, and 18-year-old Lacoya for more than a decade. They look equal parts familiar and strange to him at a distance. But the announcement was clear. These are his children. With a total disregard for macho dignity he flies across the prison yard and sweeps his three children up in his arms. He is not the man he was when he entered Angola. His children sense it, too.

The day passes quickly. It's filled with carnival rides, games, and the big Derby race. But crucial to the day are intimate conversations that redefine relationships. "My children want affection, to be loved and hugged," Waters reports. "I have a daughter who is a phenomenal athlete. We are able to share some intimate moments and deep heart issues that we couldn't share at a regular visit."

On seeing his son, Waters is surprised to have to reach up to tousle his head. "Boy, you're getting taller." Then "How are you living?" Again and again he collapses into hugging them, repeating "I miss you. I love you. I miss you."

After a tearful parting, a Malachi dad reports, "I have now cultivated a relationship with my daughter. I didn't know I needed to have a relationship. The other day I asked her if she was mad at me. She said, 'I forgive you. I know you made a mistake, and it cost you.' I told her, 'I didn't make my choice over you. It had nothing to do with you. I am sorry.'"

Malachi Dads has now spread the program to 40 prisons in the U.S. Others are seeing similar results. Life and death sentences are overshadowed by an intelligent approach to influence. Dads are changing. Kids are changing. Who'd have thought?

Overcoming Recidivism

But Awana isn't the only group to have discovered that well-informed influence strategies yield remarkable change. Another faith-based program, called Texas Offenders Reentry Initiative (T.O.R.I.), sponsored by the Potter's House, started with the same assumption: Bad habits as well as good are functions of identifiable sources of influence. Change those sources of influence, and people can change. Even those the rest of the world casts off as hopeless.

T.O.R.I. helps a couple of hundred former felons per year create a plan to change their lives. They set aside the naïve assumption that a severe enough prison sentence suffices to help someone mend his ways. T.O.R.I. assumes recidivism is the predictable result of a lack of skill, mentoring, social support, accountability, and structure. They operate on the sound assumption that change requires many sources of influence.

Case in point: Roderick Crowe entered a Texas prison at age 21 as a high-ranking member of the Crips gang. After adolescing under the tutelage of that potent group, he spent 18 years in prison receiving additional guidance from his incarcerated colleagues. On his release, he received $50 and a bus ticket. It's easy to predict Roderick's future.

Given our shoddy approach to influence, it's no surprise two out of three people like Roderick find themselves back in prison within three years. In fact, we should be shocked the number isn't higher.

With a complete view of human change, T.O.R.I. is beating those odds. Recidivism plummets with a little help with skills, guidance, structure, accountability, and encouragement. Recidivism for graduates of T.O.R.I.'s 12-month program hovers in the 8 percent range.

Luckily, Roderick was a T.O.R.I. grad, and instead of living the fate you assumed, he is happily employed, reconnected with his children and grandchildren, and living in a nice three-bedroom home. Something he, and the rest of the world, never thought he could do.

Can you really change everything that needs changing? Probably not. But you can change a lot more than most of us think. Angola hasn't just produced individual change. It has changed an institution. As a result of the efforts of a remarkable warden and through programs like Malachi Dads, it is now among the safest prisons in the U.S.

If change can happen at Angola, maybe there is hope for more mundane challenges, such as getting employees to use new performance management software. Perhaps the problem lies not in our people but in our model for change.

Joseph_grenny
Joseph Grenny is co-author of three New York Times bestsellers: Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His new book, Change Anything, made its debut in April 2011. Grenny is a consultant to corporations and co-founder of VitalSmarts, a firm that specializes in corporate training and organizational performance.

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