Leadership Lessons from Former Convicts

Photo by Jaredd Craig on  Unsplash

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

What do you think about when you hear about someone who has spent the better part of the past 25 years of their life abusing hard drugs and going in and out of prison? Would you be surprised if I told you that I recently met a bunch of people who fit this description, and that I could not have been more impressed with their strength of character, integrity, commitment, and leadership? Would you believe me if I said that they constitute an ideal model of how business culture should function in the world? Well, it’s true!

Last week, I had the good fortune of visiting The Other Side Academy (TOSA) in Utah, and getting a first-hand glimpse of just how simple—though by no means easy—it can be for a community to radically transform the behavior of its members and bring about a profound shift in the direction of their lives in a short period of time, all through the power of tough love, 100% commitment, and impeccable integrity. I have been involved as an organizing committee member in laying the groundwork to replicate TOSA in Georgia and had heard glowing reviews about its success, and yet the experience of being there left me perplexed, surprised, energized, and extraordinarily motivated to champion this cause more than ever.

(Before I go further, I’d just like to clarify that any references made to The Other Side Academy, other than direct quotes from their website, purely represent my opinions and observations and should in no way be construed as official statements about or by TOSA. Although I definitely consider myself to be championing for their cause, I am relatively new to doing so, and I am certainly not an expert on the details involved. With that said, anyone who would like to learn more can visit their website for more in-depth information.)

As stated on the organization’s website, “The Other Side Academy is a training school in which students learn pro-social, vocational and life skills allowing them to emerge with a healthy life on ‘the other side.’  This program is available as an alternative to those facing long-term incarceration as well those seeking a change from the life they’ve chosen in the past.  Many of those who seek entrance into the Academy are convicts, substance abusers, or homeless.  This school accepts men and women, both pre-and post-sentencing, who are ready to learn a new and better way to live their lives.” The flagship program, founded by Joseph Grenny and Tim Stay, is located in Salt Lake City and it is based on a program in California called Delancey Street, which has helped over 20,000 individuals since the 1970’s. This program saved the State of California from the financial and social cost of over 100,000 incarceration years, and, whereas typical recidivism is 60-70%, Delancey Street’s recidivism rate is only 10-20% for those who complete the 2-year program!

TOSA’s website states that they “believe that human beings are fundamentally good, even though their behavior may be ‘bad.’ The inborn goodness of human beings is susceptible to corruption through experience and faulty learning; conversely, good behavior can be achieved through experience and relearning. This view of human nature encourages students to pursue their full potential. It allows them to forgive themselves for past errors, as well as the past errors of others.” In addition to this growth mindset that is focused on transformation as opposed to change, TOSA places strong emphasis on both personal and community accountability, as well as impeccable honesty and integrity. These are not just slogans on the wall either, they are principles that guide every thought, word, and action that participants express in practice.

The program’s philosophy revolves around 12 beliefs that every team in every corporation would be wise to adopt. The program itself is entirely run by staff members who have had firsthand experience with a life of incarceration and addiction and have successfully turned their lives around. The students, supported by staff, run three profitable businesses that make it possible for the organization to run without any reliance on any government funding. Even more notably, they have no external medical professionals and therapists on site, because they operate as a “therapeutic community” where everyone cares for each other using whatever expertise they have.

At a glance, the 12 beliefs don’t seem to be anything extraordinary. That’s because we have seen some version of these beliefs on posters and in slogans all over our corporations. They are the right things to say. Does anybody’s company values ever state that we should be dishonest? Does anybody ever declare that we shouldn’t keep our promises or take pride in our work or be honest?! Of course not. So, just saying that you subscribe to these beliefs does not make an organization special. 

What makes TOSA special is the structure for integrity and procedures they have put in place to ensure that absolutely everyone puts their behavior in line with these principles. One such procedure to uphold the “200% accountability” standard is that, since everybody is 100% accountable for themselves and 100% accountable for others, everyone is expected to confront any behavior that goes against the principles immediately and bring it up to the leader of the tribe (small group) that the person is in. Not only that, but twice a week, they have the opportunity to voice their concerns in a public setting with about 25 people to ensure it gets resolved. This is very much in line with the belief that people are good. If they weren’t, why would you even bother confronting them and trying to correct their behavior?

It is because students respect one another and believe that they can do better that they go against years of conditioning to the contrary and stand for each other being extraordinary and impeccable. It is because both the person being confronted and the one confronting them know that “they are the one, but it is not about them,” that this process leads to behavior being cleaned up rather than people making it mean something about them. The other thing this practice does is that it causes people to say what they need to say rather than holding a grudge and avoiding the conversation that they know they need to have. This allows community members to actually work through issues on an as-needed basis, rather than letting them get blown out of proportion. This practice also serves the person who commits an offense well in that it gives them an opportunity to hear honest feedback and use it to get a fresh start with the community members, rather than carrying the burden of knowing they have done something wrong and feeling guilty about it. 

This is the exact opposite of what happens in many professional organizations today, as the norm is to withhold feedback and hold a grudge and defend oneself and try to hide imperfections so we don’t look bad, which causes a bunch of baggage to be carried by everyone as they compromise their integrity. Everyone is looking out for themselves, thinking, “I’m not the one, but it is all about me,” while their individual competition to get to the top or sabotage others ends up being to the detriment of the entire community. 

Indeed, what makes TOSA stand out as an extraordinary organization with superior results to any traditional method of trying to rehabilitate the demographic they work with is their emphasis on consistent behavior in line with their principles and beliefs. And while many corporations rely on weeks and months of training and orientation, TOSA has a much simpler approach to on-boarding new “family members.” They are sponsored and supported by other students to ensure that they understand and abide by the expectations and standards. These standards are initially very strict for freshmen to help them get back in touch with their innate goodness, but they are gradually loosened to afford the students additional liberties and autonomy in line with their growing integrity as they move through the program.

Some might say, “Sure, those people have a lot of motivation to do what they have to do because they’re trying to stay out of prison, but how do we influence people in our businesses to change their long-standing negative behaviors?” My response to that is two-fold. First of all, while the students at TOSA have a much more compelling reason to live with integrity and commitment, they also face much greater challenges. If they wanted to use their challenges as an excuse to not change, I am confident they could make a far stronger case that it is much easier for us to create the behavior changes on our cushy business teams than it is for them to overcome the significant barriers—familiar, mental, physical, social—they have faced for their whole lives. Given that, what exactly is our excuse in the business world, where we have the tools and skills and opportunity to succeed, and even failure is basically a formality?

Secondly, I am convinced that any worthwhile transformation is only possible if it is about something greater than oneself and that is exactly what happens at TOSA. The students go there initially to change their lives, but based on what I observed, many of them choose to hang in there and stick with it because they want to change other people’s lives. I heard several people admit that just a little over a year ago, they didn’t care about anything or anybody but now, they have dedicated the rest of their lives to helping others. It becomes about a greater purpose than themselves. I dare say that I have rarely seen a stronger embodiment of my favorite phrase, “I am the one and it’s not about me,” than I did at TOSA. 

It should be clear by now that I am a huge fan of TOSA and would love to go on and on about it, but I’ll leave it here for now. I hope that you take the time to check out The Other Side Academy’s website and Facebook page as well as a number of YouTube videos about the organization by Tim Stay, Joseph Grenny, Dave Durocher, and others. Additionally, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book, Influencer, co-authored by Joseph Grenny, and think about how you could apply the principles they are using to help people transform their lives to your team and your organization. You’ll be glad you did.

About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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