John Lonergan is a native of Bansha, Co. Tipperary. He served in the Irish Prison Service for over 42 years. He was Governor of Mountjoy Prison for over 22 years and Governor of the top security prison at Portlaoise for almost 4 years. He retired in June 2010 and later that year his autobiography “The Governor” was published. In 2013 he wrote a book on parenting with the title “Parenting – raising your child in Ireland today”, with all royalties going to Barnardos, the children’s charity. Nowadays he delivers talks on a wide range of subjects to communities, voluntary groups, workers and students. He is an active supporter of many charitable organisations.
His philosophy is that change, personal or otherwise, cannot be enforced on people, believing that real and meaningful change only comes about through dialogue, consent and agreement. He is convinced that human beings change from the inside out and suggests that the big challenge for all of us is to find the humanity in others and then to nurture it. He is satisfied that the more people are in touch with their own humanity the more likely they are to treat others with humanity – show respect to gain respect.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
Many elements of leadership can be taught or learned as most are linked to behaviour and attitudes. I believe that much of our normal day to day behaviour impacts on how effective our leadership role is and how much influence we have with other people. I find it very difficult to totally separate leadership qualities from the personality of the person, most personal qualities overlap and few of them are exclusively leadership, but many contribute to effective leadership. Elements of leadership can be taught in the classroom, on the job training, through modern technology, reading, observing other leaders and studying different leadership styles, etc. I regard effective communication as a core requirement of leadership and communication skills can be learned. I also believe that some elements of leadership like personal values, attitudes and charisma can’t be taught. Finally, the greatest leadership asset of all is experience and that mainly comes from years of trial and error.
If you had to leave your organisation for 1 year what would you ask of your team and what advice would you give them?
I would tell them that I had total confidence in their ability to manage the organisation during my absence. I would emphasise that they are in charge now and to act accordingly and to be true to themselves. I would advise them to stand by the truth, as the truth never goes away.
What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?
Constantly reminding myself that the world is changing rapidly year by year and that I must keep pace with that change, otherwise, I will be left behind. For example, I am very conscious of the growth and influence of technology in contemporary society and as a result the most effective means of communication is through social media and modern technology.
What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?
Some of the leaders I most admire are: John Hume, for his wisdom of seeing the bigger picture in Northern Ireland from the very beginning of the peace process. He knew that peace would result in the possible demise of his own political party the SDLP, but he accepted that was the price to pay for peace – that is leadership at its very best. Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, he revolutionised the world airline industry by introducing cheap fares – the world has become a smaller place as a result. Father Peter McVerry, for his outstanding leadership in keeping the homeless situation to the forefront of our national social agenda for decades. Paul O’Connell, world class rugby player, always leading from the front and for being so humble.
If you could wind back the clock to when you were starting your career what advice would you give yourself?
Before dealing with any problems I would ask myself ‘will the outcome matter in 1, 2, 3 years time?’ If the answer is yes, then it is important, if the answer is no, then it doesn’t matter. To reflect and analyse every project/task/incident that had a positive outcome – positive outcomes don’t happen by accident, it is most helpful to know why something worked well.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
The best resource of all is to observe leadership styles in your own organisation, in national and local politics, at community level, in sport, etc,. Seeing leadership in practice is a wonderful resource, and it is free. I found a few books on leadership very helpful when I started off 50 years ago. The first book I read was “In Search of Excellence” written by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. and published by Harper and Row. I found books by Charles Handy very helpful, “The Elephant and the Flea”, “The Empty Raincoat”, “The Age of Unreason”, and “Gods of Management”. I also found books by Jean Vanier very useful, “Our Journey Home” comes to mind. And, finally, I would strongly recommend a book published a few years ago by Brian F. Smyth entitled “Managing to be Human”.