Leading During a Lockdown: What Prison Can Teach Us

I’ve been on the phone with a lot of CEOs and other executives the past few weeks who are struggling with managing major businesses while their employees have been scattered in the wind to work from home. It’s not easy and the answers aren’t obvious, but while attempting to meditate (don’t ask!) I’ve come up with a few ideas that might at least allow us to look at the problem differently.

First of all, I know it is possible to accomplish – you can do it! And now allow me to show you why I am so confident of that.

Think of the major drug cartels.

Really – I’m serious. They have been leading multi-billion dollar enterprises FROM PRISON for decades. If they can do it, I bet we can figure it out.

My information is anecdotal, of course, and comes from Hollywood, but still, I am assured by all the credit sequences that it is based on real events.

Here’s some observations:

You need the right crew

Part of the reason criminal enterprises are so successful is that they breed a certain type of culture, and recruit members with values and traits that fit in well with that culture. Likewise, CEOs need to cultivate a culture that can help their organization flourish. You need trustworthy team players with a “can do” attitude and devotion to their job, their customers, the technology they sell, and the organization they work for. Whether you’re in prison, your home office, or operating under normal conditions — assuming prison or home office isn’t normal — you need to work with people you can trust to do the job the way you would do it yourself.

You’ve got to stay in touch

Just like prison, COVID-19 physically separates us from our business associates. So, maintaining contact with the folks you work with, your suppliers, and your customers is a must. In prison, you’d meet with visitors (like Holly Golightly) or smuggle in a cellphone to keep up with what’s happening on the outside. In our situation, we’ve got dozens of video conferencing and collaboration platforms to make sure we stay connected. You’re as capable of holding your employees responsible from a home office as a mob boss is from a cell — in the form of a pink slip rather than cement shoes, hopefully. If prison bars and all the physical security in the world can’t stop a high-level mobster from communicating with suppliers and key members within their organization, then your home office shouldn’t either.

Hazard pay

Loyalty is a two-way street. No one is going to be loyal to you for no reason. Just like respect, loyalty is earned. Gangsters understand this because, in the criminal world, one disloyal person can ruin it for the entire organization. Criminal organizations keep their incarcerated members on the payroll.

You’ve got to take care of your employees during these tough times to make sure they stick around when things are better. Your employees are going to remember how you treated them during the time of crisis. If you want loyal, dedicated employees, then you need to be loyal and dedicated to their basic needs.


Criminal organizations have the same goals as your business. They want to make money. They want to grow their business. They want to beat the competition. The products and services that they sell and the best practices they employ might be different. But as long as we’re stuck inside and they’re stuck behind bars, you have a lot more in common then you thought.

A quick-reference checklist:
What might be important in these unusual times

  1. Access to a cell phone
  2. A cadre of trusted professionals around you or available to you at all times
  3. Excellent communication skills
  4. An internal network of couriers or information networks to get information where it needs to be quickly
  5. Storage for finished products
  6. Good logistics for product movement
  7. Product proximity to customers
  8. Creativity with bartering and building strategic alliances
  9. Good lawyers/consiglieri
  10. Banking relationships
  11. Align production capacity to current and projected demand
  12. Maintaining your territories
  13. Maintaining a good interface to the government authorities
  14. Protection for your team
  15. Networking and communications infrastructure
  16. Security – for buildings and people
  17. Contingency plans for rapidly changing environments to adapt and adjust
  18. A succession plan for unexpected events in case you can’t lead anymore
  19. Good cash flow for your “soldiers” to keep money in their pockets


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Patricia Ames is president and senior analyst for BPO Media, which publishes The Imaging Channel and Workflow magazines. As a market analyst and industry consultant, Ames has worked for prominent consulting firms including KPMG and has more than 15 years experience in the imaging industry covering technology and business sectors. Ames has lived and worked in the United States, Southeast Asia and Europe and enjoys being a part of a global industry and community.