Microcosms: Skills Approach to Leadership in America’s Prison System





If the relationship between the evil and the exceptional, within the frame of leadership, were tenuous, than exceptionally evil leaders would not litter human history. I find myself fascinated by the concepts of leadership in unusual contexts. I wanted to dig a little deeper into “bad” leaders, or more precisely, leaders who emerge without regard to “normal” paradigms of leadership and ascension. In this research, I came to the conclusion that leadership is not too far removed from coercion (Kellerman, 2004). Sometimes the components of the skills approach to leadership combine with unique environmental characteristics to catalyze an efficient and effective monster, unencumbered by ethical issues, large or small (Ciulla, 2001).

Forty years after the introduction of the first skills-approach to leadership, another model changed the original three skills areas into a three-part competency group that included problem-solving skills, social judgment skills and knowledge (Northouse, 2013). This model also introduced individual attributes (traits) and leadership outcomes, made mention of the potential influence of the environment, and postulated that competencies could be enhanced through career experiences (learning) (Northouse, 2013).  Problem solving skills indicate an ability to use abstract concepts to generate solutions to problems in unique ways. Knowledge is the information needed to solve problems, gained through experience (Northouse, 2013). Subdividing the fourth concept into four parts, more comprehensively explains what social judgment skills are. Perspective taking is seeing the situation or problem from the angle of different people. Social perceptiveness is intuitive knowledge of the organization. Behavioral flexibility allows leaders to transform their approach depending on the needs of the situation. Social performance directly measures the effectiveness of a leader’s communication ability (Northouse, 2013). In this model, the individual attributes are general cognitive ability (IQ), crystallized cognitive ability (experience), motivation, and personality. The third component to this model, leadership outcomes, is effective problem solving and performance. The fourth component is career experiences, or the learning that occurs across the span of a career and the fifth component is environmental influence (Northouse, 2013).

It would stand to reason that if leaders were all made of the same component traits or personality structures there would never be abhorrent leaders who exemplify the Dark Triad traits or there would only be dark leaders (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). The question remains, though, can conventional leadership theory explain hierarchical power structures in unconventional environments, such as those found in a prison population.  The existence of hierarchical structures in prison populations is widely recognized. These systems fascinate researchers and laypeople, alike, because of the congruence between the operations inside the institution and normative and criminal operations in the free world. There are several established assemblages found within prisons, stratified by racial, religious and political affiliation (Jacobs, 1976).   This type of stratification has origins outside of prison, in the country’s general population. This explains, to some extent, the underlying basis for their formation (Camp & Camp, 1985). An overarching hierarchy also exists within prisons based on the reason for the inmate’s incarceration; murderers are at the top and pedophiles are at the bottom. The environment significantly influences the formation of systems of alliance and discord within a prison’s social order.  One of the most important mediating environmental factors in the prison population is a proclivity for coalescing based on a shared adversary; in this case, the assigned leaders, the guards, are the shared adversaries (Kellerman, 2004). Regardless of the pretexts for stratification, the objective is the same; prison gangs operate with the purpose of producing revenue. Revenue streams inside prison can be cash, but the more common currencies are contraband and debt; illegal drugs, prohibited items like cell phones and over the counter medications, and favors from other inmates (Jacobs, 1976).

prison pic1

Camp and Camp (1985) described gang leader characteristics and power structures, in line with both the trait and the skills approaches to leadership (pp. ix-xi). Gangs may have their power concentrated with a single, strong leader or a “committee” may hold the power (Camp & Camp, 1985). Ascension to a leadership role within a prison gang seems to parallel advancement in legitimate organizations. Members can work their way up through establishing tenure, exemplary performance or a deliberate power-grab.  Important traits held by leaders in the majority of prison gangs studied were physical strength, endurance, athleticism and violent tendencies. Additionally, the reason for incarceration plays a noteworthy role in status, inclusion and succession. Personality is a factor inside prison subcultures that affects leadership, just as it is in the general population.

Problem solving skills within an inmate population can be very valuable to gangs since these skills can enhance the effectiveness of the subculture’s subversive business dealings (Camp & Camp, 1985). Knowledge, as mentioned earlier, is the information needed to solve problems, gained through experience (Northouse, 2013). Inside prison social structures, both formally and informally acquired knowledge is valuable. Gang leaders desire inmates with specialized skills, learned prior to incarceration, to expand and enhance their dealings. Social judgment skills are what allow the inmate to alter their behavior and thinking to conform to the situation. Overtime, effectively modeling this type of flexibility communicates power and influence within the population. A significant difference between the application of these skills inside a prison and in the regular population is in the way they are applied. Instead of gauging outcomes in this area on quality of communication and motivation, within the unique configuration of incarcerated populations, outcomes achieved through fear, coercion and violence are standard. The individual attributes of general cognitive ability, crystallized cognitive ability, motivation, and personality serve the same purposes inside the prison system as they do outside; these individual characteristics facilitate the relationships that power the leader-follower dyads (Kellerman, 2004). Career experiences may be the most important part of the Skills Approach applied to prison populations. The crimes that landed prisoners in detention, as noted previously, are pertinent to growing respect within the subculture’s established hierarchies. Moreover, the criminal histories of individual inmates provide relevant familiarity for operating within a criminal enterprise.


Relating the Skills Approach to the complex subcultures that exist in the prison population provides insight into the unknown. The value in gaining a deeper understanding of power systems in prisons may not appear to have application outside of the criminal justice or legal fields; however, the sheer quantity of prisoners in this country stand in opposition to the notion that incarcerated populations are “somebody else’s problem.” Although this problem is far beyond the scope of a blog and far beyond my abilities to answer, I find the systems within “the system” fascinating in their representation of a microcosm of the outside world.

~Annemargaret M.


Camp, G. M., & Camp, C. G. (1985). Prison gangs : their extent, nature, and impact on prisons. Washington, D.C: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Legal Policy, Federal Justice Research Program.

Ciulla, J. B. (2001). Ethics and Leadership Effectiveness. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

Jacobs, J. B. (1976). Stratification and Conflict among Prison Inmates. Journal of Law and Criminology, 66(4), 476-485.

Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad Leadership: What it is, How it happens, Why it matters,. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Paulhus, D., & Williams, K. (2002, December). The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 556-563.

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