There are times in life when we experience things we can learn from, and other times when we feel like we learned nothing at all. I am here to tell you that if you look hard enough, every life experience offers a teachable moment. You may have to dig deep, but it’s up to you to find the nugget – and learn how to “translate” key experiences into positive outcomes.
To put myself through college, I managed to get a job as a corrections officer in a maximum-security prison. I did that for two years, working nights while attending school during the day. It took me many years to understand that those two years as a jail guard were foundational in developing my current leadership style. (And no, I didn’t have to adopt a “brass knuckles” style to lead my teams!)
…those two years as a jail guard were foundational in developing my current leadership style.
Here are five things my brief career as a corrections officer taught me.
- When you want something badly enough, you can achieve it. By temperament I am a soft-hearted person, and honestly never imagined myself working in a prison environment. The things I saw and experienced were downright awful at times. Reflecting back, I cannot believe I stuck out that job for two whole years. Yet at the time, the only thing I was focused on was achieving my college education while supporting my mother. The only way to do this was to secure the best-paying job at the time as a prison officer. I did what was needed to build the future I had already imagined.
- Your problem-solving abilities increase exponentially. Several years after leaving corrections, I took part in the Center for Creative Leadership’s training that involved group problem-solving. In those exercises, facilitators would watch to see how teams interacted and solved problems. I remember being debriefed later by the facilitators. They told me that the speed at which I sorted through problems was superior, largely due to the “split second” decision-making I had to do as a prison guard, much like police officers and fire fighters do each day. Who would’ve guessed?
- By applying the Golden Rule, relationship-building and influencing skills soar. I never, ever used my power or authority in the prison to get things done. I always respected the inmates as individuals, and received the same respect back. In fact on several occasions, the inmates “had my back” during a few potential hostage situations. I used to remind them that we were both “doing time” in the institution together, so we had to do it in the most respectful way. (This was not the norm with other guards, I assure you.)
- Courage to stand up for the right thing is the most powerful leadership trait. On several occasions, I had to stand up for the proper treatment of my “charges,” even when colleagues disagreed or tried to sabotage my efforts. Their responses didn’t really matter to me, because I knew I was doing what was right for the individuals under my responsibility. I gained a reputation among all as someone who was self-directed by integrity, credibility and the Golden Rule. It was not my role to judge, but to fulfill my responsibilities with honesty and integrity.
- Attitude is everything. I survived my “term” as a prison guard because every day I woke up thankful for what I had and how I lived my life. I always felt extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn, love life, and not live on the wrong side of freedom. My mantra was, “Attitude determines your altitude; how high do you want to fly?” Believe me, that attitude rubbed off on the inmates, and made those two years a lot more manageable.
In summary, we all experience good times and bad. What matters most is that we reflect upon both, and identify “key learnings” that have positively shaped our life’s trajectory. My career as a corrections officer definitely molded me into the leader I am today. I encourage you to take some time to reflect upon the great “teaching moments” of your life, and use those experiences to create positive change in your own sphere of influence – no brass knuckles required!
Identify three positive outcomes from a difficult life experience and how they shaped you for the better.