We Are All Imperfect

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There are far too many examples in the news where many leaders fail to provide opportunities for their team members and insufficient support for their people. It’s refreshing reading some of this week’s news about HMP Pentonville and the Twinning Project. They are getting our applause this week for the continued display of compassionate leadership and initiatives for inmates across the nation.

Since 2018 the charity, founded by former Arsenal FC co-owner David Dein, has visited prisons across the UK to offer football coaching courses to inmates, providing opportunities to create their own destiny in life after prison. At Pentonville, 15 inmates have earned their level 1 FA coaching badges, and Dein knew the perfect man to award these, former Arsenal and England striker, Ian Wright.

Wright expressed that football saved his life, and that “People say you’ve got to get yourself on the straight and narrow, but it’s very hard, especially when you’re in prison with nowhere to go.” Having experience of prison life at a young age, Wright better understands the importance and possibility of creating a different narrative for your life.

It’s a leader’s role to set examples and offer the necessary options for their team as they progress through their career, Pentonville governor Ian Blakeman empathised with the inmates, “Prisons can be difficult places. To get something that is out of the usual range of activities is really important – it gives people hope and optimism.” Blakeman, with such a simple observation, has taught a valuable lesson – give your people hope and optimism.

This story brought a smile to my face and reminded me of my own visit to Pentonville in 2019 with my colleague Adam, delivering a talk during Black History Month. It was a unique experience; nobody went by names, and I was never addressed as ‘René’ – an identity free experience. Two inmates have always stayed in mind, giving me so much to think about. The first man approached me, the cliché tough and dangerous individual, with brothers the same – he challenged “how do you know anything about our lives and where we come from?” A question I thought was fair to ask – I informed him that we had grown up in the same, uncompromising area and I too had been aware of the tenacious nature of Harlesden in northwest London. The whole atmosphere in the room changed – I was no longer an outsider, and I had gained their trust and credibility, I had walked in their shoes.

The next inmate was a lot quieter, shy almost – he whispered “I’m so glad that I came today. I have never been able to read or write. But I can dance, and I have taught many others to dance, but I can’t read or write. Today, you have shown me how to tell my story without having to write or read it. I’m working on it already – thank you”. A thank you that stood out that day. None of them acknowledged anything, that might betray weakness – everybody has a story to tell.

Adam, on his first visit to a prison, ever. To this day he can recall it all – he remembered seeing inmates his age and younger, thinking ‘wow’ and ‘how?’ I knew it was going to be an experience for him to remember. He was probably quite intimidated by the environment – it was just as unforgiving as you’d expect. Nothing but concrete walls and a tense look from everyone around. But Adam never failed to understand inclusion and the importance of just simply observing and listening – he did exactly that as I gave my talk. He expressed how amazed he was at how engaged everybody was, but he understood why. These inmates were humans, they were often misheard and never had an opportunity to make amends. We both learnt that day just how many talented individuals are incarcerated. Many can add real value to a team, but don’t feel they have the right to join one when they leave prison. They desperately need support, understanding and most of all, a chance.

I have always been lucky enough to coach a few high-profile leaders and I’ve mentored a batch of bright people at the start of their careers – all who have opportunities to go much further. HMP Pentonville taught us that rehabilitation is vital for these inmates and with some coaching support they could turn themselves around. The Twinning Project is doing just that and more, their program enables others to benefit from coaching and indeed become coaches.

Coaching isn’t about telling people what to do. It’s about getting people to be the best version of themselves.

Prison alone will not answer the challenges of contemporary society, we must establish environments where inmates feel included.

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