5 Leadership Lessons From Ex-Cons

UPDATED: May 5, 2016
PUBLISHED: May 5, 2016

How do you create a culture that takes in people with the worst résumés on the planet and turns them into productive and contributing team members?

If you think you’ve wrestled with that leadership challenge, you probably haven’t met Mimi Silbert. Perhaps her name doesn’t resonate, but the name of her organization might: the Delancey Street Foundation, based in San Francisco. For more than four decades, her nonprofit has helped turn around the lives of more than 18,000 ex-cons, drug addicts and prostitutes. Over the years, she and her foundation have been covered in the national press and the subject of multiple broadcasts, including ABC World News Tonight, Street Stories With Ed Bradley and an Oprah special. They’ve also inspired fistfuls of academic papers.

 What it is about Delancey Street’s core values, beliefs and systems that explain its extraordinary success? Or a recidivism rate that is 30 to 35 percent, something few prison systems or rehab centers have even come close to? The secret isn’t a great fleet of social workers. Overseeing 350 mostly hardened criminals, Silbert runs the place by herself with only a handful of volunteers. She lives on the premises, where she raised a couple of sons there. There isn’t a single guard in the facility. There are no locked doors. And, despite a population rife with convicted murderers and armed robbers, she says not a single act of violence has been committed there in 43 years.

Trained as a clinician working within the prison system, Silbert earned a doctorate from U.C. Berkeley in criminology and psychology. She has a simple approach. “It’s your life,” explains the 73-year-old, 4-foot-11-inch dynamo. “What you do with it makes a difference—and you control what happens to it.”

Related: 4 Reasons to Take Control of Your Destiny

Silbert offers these leadership tips from her experience working with ex-cons:

1. Teach responsibility.

Because Delancey Street has no staff, everyone has a specific role to help run the place. There is something deeply engaging about feeling the daily responsibility of being needed, Silbert explains. It’s a new experience for most people entering the facility.

2. Put a price on effort: Make everyone earn everything.

Residents earn the chance to move from one job to another, from washing dishes in the café, say, to waiting on tables and serving the public. Everyone earns the chance to move up from the nine-person bunk room, where each resident starts an average four-year stay, to upgraded quarters with fewer roommates. No one can talk his or her way out of trouble or into special privileges. Emphasizing that even self-esteem has to be earned, Silbert provides the structure to win respect through accomplishment.

3. Create positive change by learning from the worst mistakes.

Out of the cultural building blocks of Delancey Street is the conviction that people don’t have to be held hostage by their criminal pasts. They can make new lives for themselves. Pushing Delancey Street residents to shift their energy and actions from criminal intentions and behaviors to productive work that benefits others, Silbert gives fast feedback, sometimes in the brutal language of their barred past. Slip a notch, and she will call you out, loudly, even in a public setting. But the idea is to call attention to a problem in order to deal with it. “We all make terrible mistakes because we’re human,” she says, “but no matter what you do, everything is fixable.”

Related: How to Make the Most of Your Mistakes

4. Turn improvements into teaching opportunities.

“Each one, teach one,” is a basic precept at Delancey Street. This principle applies as much to helping someone improve reading comprehension or learning communication skills as it does to passing along lessons about dignity and how to wear a dress or suit and tie properly. A core tenet of Delancey Street: “As soon as I learn, I become a teacher.”

That sort of tag-team teaching pushes residents through the most basic skills so they can work in Delancey Street’s restaurant, café, moving company or auto repair. Often it’s their first regular job; some of these people are third-generation gang members. By learning a trade and earning money that helps pay for food and the upkeep of the facility, the residents begin to learn about integrity and dignity. Silbert herself is a pretty good model of self-reliance with a side of selflessness: She has never accepted government aid (and she herself draws no salary).

5. Underscore every lesson with clear rules—and penalties.

Of course, there are rules at Delancey Street—lots of them. There are rules about personal hygiene and dorm neatness. There are rules about the workday, from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days a week. There are rules about stepping out of line; do that and you end up washing dishes in the restaurant. There are rules about quitting the premises; you need a really a good reason to regain admission. And there are rules about never threatening anyone; that leads to automatic expulsion with no hope of returning. As the rules become habitual, behaviors begin to change. The Latino gang member and the white supremacist—once so full of mutual hatred they lay awake all night fearing attack—learn to get along because they have to: They’ve lived in the same dorm room since day one.

Part mom, part shrink, part probation officer, Silbert loves her people and they love her. But it’s love on the tough end of the spectrum. She is certainly no pushover. You live by her laws or you’re out. But residents know just how she has helped them turn their lives around, and that makes them loyal. “That’s why I don’t need protection,” she laughs. “I’ve got 350 bodyguards.”

Delancey Street is the result of her early work with the California prison system, designed as an alternative to incarceration or a condition of parole. Co-founded with $1,000 from a loan shark, the foundation was named after the Lower East Side neighborhood where Silbert’s Jewish immigrant parents grew up.

In 1992, when the organization outgrew its Victorian home, Silbert found a huge, rundown piece of real estate in the Embarcadero, near San Francisco Bay. After buying it, she had no money to hire a construction crew. So she learned the trade, got licensed and put her own people to work. A good example of showing by doing. Today, it’s a 350,000-square-foot residence and retail complex. And Silbert has extended her reach by opening five additional Delancey Street affiliates around the U.S., from Los Angeles to the Carolinas to New York City.

Love your people, believe in them, call them out when they make mistakes—but especially when they do well—and they will become more than you or they can imagine.

Related: 7 Ways to Build Your Employees’ Self-Confidence

David Sturt is an executive vice president of the O.C. Tanner Institute and author of The New York Times best-selling book Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love. His career began in market research, where he studied and analyzed the effects of people being recognized for great work. In the two decades since, he has researched and developed several multimillion-dollar services that engage employees, inspire above and beyond contribution, and reward outstanding results in organizations around the world.