Being on both sides of the cell door, I know there’s a lot that CEOs can learn from their prison counterparts.
March 29, 2019 6 min read
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As anyone who goes through the system will tell you, guards may watch the prison, but inmates run it. The prison system is based on a set of rules called “prison politics” that are endorsed and enforced by the inmates themselves, not the Department of Corrections. You can think of it as a sort of C-suite in the business world.
A shot caller, generally speaking, is the top leader in a prison system. Specifically, the shot caller is an inmate who, as so aptly named, calls the shots. In prison slang, it’s the inmate who “has the keys.” The highest ranking shot caller does so for his entire prison gang and race. Then there are shot callers for each housing unit, yard and so on all the way up.
What is a CEO? Basically the same thing, but instead of an orange jumpsuit, they sport a neutral colored (depending on seasonal trends) custom Armani suits with dollar sign cufflinks instead of wrist and feet shackles. I’m joking, but at the end of the day, both are leaders in their own right, albeit one may lead with violence while the other leads with 401k incentives.
But being on both sides of the cell door, I know there’s a lot that CEOs can learn from their prison counterparts.
1. Put work in and earn your cred.
While some CEOs might rise to the top because of nepotism, the truly good ones earned their title. In prison, only the truly good ones can rise to the top and get elected to be shot callers. Reputations need to be built in the office or in the prison yard. You don’t get named a shot caller if you have a bad rep, are untrustworthy and don’t work hard. You get named a shot caller after you’ve established your name.
2. How to maintain order.
Shot callers don’t just start brawls or order hits. They need to be diplomatic and negotiate with other groups and with individuals within and outside of the crew. It’s your job to back your buddies or your co-workers, but it’s also your job to try and keep the peace. In addition to working with their fellow inmates, shot callers also have to work with the other shot callers. This is an important lesson for effective CEOs and leaders too. Maintaining order and balance in a chaotic environment, whether on the prison yard or the pit of cubicles, is key to a successful culture.
3. Prove that you’re down.
In prison, proving that you’re “down” might mean doing some dirty deeds, like starting a riot or some sordid act unfit for office life. But as anyone who has ever climbed to the top knows, you gotta do the dirty work to get there. While a CEO might not need to earn respect through shows of violence or a reputation on the street, CEOs make it to the top by first doing the jobs nobody else will step up to do. It sets you apart as someone who is “down” to do what it takes to achieve success (I’m not talking anything illegal here).
4. Put the interests of the group above your own.
Some people want to become shot callers for the sake of their own ego, but they’re not likely to be successful if they do. It’s the same with CEOs. If they’re doing it purely for the money or the prestige, then the company will not be as well off as if they were doing it for the good of all involved. Decisions need to be made based on the good of the whole group, not for the good of one individual. It’s not all glamour, respect and (in the case of the CEO) a hefty paycheck. It’s a tough job that sometimes involves putting yourself last.
5. Keep a level head.
When the rest of the prison is ready to boil, it’s a shot caller’s job to resolve the chaos. Sometimes shot callers need to make the decision to let a brawl happen or the riot to reach its pinnacle, but more often than not, the shot caller needs to maintain a sense of calm when the world around him is ready to rip itself apart. The ultimate duty of a shot caller is to keep order. The most successful shot callers are the ones who keep peace and have strong emotional stability to accomplish their big goal. They are the leaders that other inmates look up to, and in order to manage an entire prison yard, they need to be able to master themselves first.
Successful CEOs need to be great leaders. Shot callers are, inevitably, great leaders. The general public likes to dismiss the prison population, but the reality is that there is an entire world within those walls, and it takes somebody with strong leadership skills and some serious stamina to keep it running. The guards are there to guard, the wardens are there to keep the laws, but the real problem-solvers and go-getters of the prison system are the shot callers themselves. They’re the first responders. The prison diplomats. They’re the ones who call the real shots, and if you want to be a CEO with some true leadership skills, you can learn a thing or two from shot callers (just not the illegal shit).
Do you want to learn some other prison-based leadership and life hacks, but don’t want to put in that kind of time? Check out my upcoming book, Don’t Drop the Soap: The Wildest $#*t About Prison You Can’t Learn on Netflix.