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Three Leaders Undo Crime

In previous articles, three breakthrough leaders in crime prevention were profiled. In this final commentary, writer David Holmstrom focuses on why these individuals are so successful.

THE breakthrough leaders profiled in this series are the people who went in the garage, found the tools, and fixed the car while nearly everyone else sat around complaining that the old car wouldn't run anymore.

It is the discontent with the old car that helps shape a vision of a better way to travel. Stretching the point a bit, this is what a true leader does.

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For Dennis Luther it was an effort to create a more humane prison, while most prisons in the United States are known as places of grim hostility.

For Sarah Buel, it was the personal courage to look the epidemic of domestic abuse in the face, and bring help and justice to battered women.

And for Steve Valdivia, the growth of street gangs in Los Angeles only meant that there had to be ways to dilute their power and to offer alternatives and hope.

What "success" means to these three leaders is to work for the success of others. What they have done is applicable elsewhere, given the same commitment, tools, and courage. Despite their imperfections, these are leaders to celebrate and emulate.

They prove one person can make a big difference.

Beyond any interest in huge salaries, beyond fame and prestige, beyond personal comfort, these three people have staked their professional careers and lives on the desire to change three of society's most perplexing problems: prison conditions, domestic violence, and street gangs. Golden Rule in prison

For warden Luther at McKean prison, a remarkably well-run federal medium-security facility of 1,300 inmates in Pennsylvania, "It is the people who make the difference here, how people treat people."

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While many other US prisons that struggle with overcrowding opt for increasingly tighter controls, Mr. Luther's leadership prevents this model from developing.

At the heart of Luther's approach is the conviction that each individual - among staff and inmates alike - is worth care and respect. He creates a flexible but clearly defined institution to carry this out. With a hand-picked top staff, he codifies values and expectations for the institution, and reinforces and rewards acceptable behavior. Luther's success inadvertently becomes an argument that the Golden Rule is a management tool. It can work even in an overcrowded prison.

A byproduct is efficiency. McKean spends $38 a day per inmate, $2 below the average for medium-security prisons.

Of the three leaders in this series, Luther's style is the most obvious and nurtured. He works in a closed, self-contained environment. After 13 years as a warden, three at McKean, he is a deliberate, conservative, low-key leader, not at all embarrassed to pause several seconds before answering a reporter's question, or talk about the need for standards. He was raised by loving grandparents, he says, "who instilled strong values in me."

In addition, Luther says he has always "had a need to help people if they are in trouble."

But a feeling of concern for people is not enough. Forging a different kind of prison in an age inclined to want harsh incarceration, requires more than just the desire to do it. Also needed are experience, judgment, trust, and - in a large institution - a willingness to delegate authority. Luther appears to do all this smoothly. Central to his approach is his conviction that "I have never met anyone who is irredeemable."

"He's always looking ahead," says Timothy Outlaw, Luther's executive assistant at McKean, "trying to find new ways to make the management of the inmates easier. He's showing us young guys a different approach to handling a prison. He cares for people, and always takes time to talk to anybody." Making zeal `contagious'

This same accessibility is evident in Sarah Buel, a tenacious assistant district attorney in Norfolk County, just south of Boston. A one-time welfare recipient, Ms. Buel has earned a national reputation as an advocate for millions of women abused through domestic violence.

Buel's care and empathy springs from experience. She escaped with her young son from a violent marriage, and knows the fear and frustration of being an abused woman. "I have deep spiritual beliefs," she says, "and I think that helps me do this work. I think my life was spared to do this work. I didn't leave the first time I was hit, and I know how many thousands of women there are with unsupportive families, and nobody to whom they can turn."

In addition to maintaining a full workweek, she often meets with clients on Sundays and gives her home phone number to women who are afraid the police won't come in time. Even before she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1990, she had launched dozens of programs and projects to help abused women in several states. She teaches, consults, sits on committees, and participates in seminars.

"I never think of myself as a leader," she says. "One of the gifts about feeling impassioned about this issue is that I can make it contagious. People tell me sometimes, `I'll work on this project if you will.' Well, I can't work on everything, but if nobody else is going to do it, I'll do it."

Because Buel seems not to think of herself as a leader, it is difficult to explore the topic with her. To questions about leadership, she might begin her answer with "Well, I'm good at starting projects," and then quickly change the subject to issues of law and domestic violence.

Another Buel project is involvement with a national foundation working on a project comparing domestic violence laws in all 50 states. The aim is to put together a model code.

"Being on this committee," Buel says, "is giving me an opportunity to really study the laws of all the states, and think about what it is that should be done, which fits exactly with my belief in doing this work with a sense of vision, not just sort of plowing along and saying, `Oh God, this is so awful.' "

Even if Buel deflects talk of leadership, her persuasiveness is an aspect of leadership. One of her co-workers said, "Sometimes I think she is unstoppable." Dealing at street level

Equally as committed, but more in tune to the politics around him, is Steve Valdivia. In Los Angeles, Mr. Valdivia has worked with and near street gangs for almost 17 years. As executive director of the Community Youth Gang Services (CYGS) for the last eight years, Valdivia has developed a political acumen less evident in Luther and Buel. "I have to keep my eye on politics here," he says, noting that his budget comes from city and state funds, and is renewed annually.

"Mayor Tom Bradley knows what we can do," says Valdivia, whose organization is known for successful street-level intervention with gangs. "We're one of the few agencies in this current [budget] crisis that didn't get cut," he says of his relatively small $2.2 million budget. "Politicians are strange: They do the right things for the wrong reasons, and vice versa. I'm just trying to make sure we do the right thing for the right reasons."

Valdivia's leadership style is loose and often unstructured, a likely result of years of being close to the "street culture," and reflects the quicksilver political changes often needed to survive.

In a recent major report on street gangs by the L.A. County District Attorney, CYGS leadership was alternately praised and criticized. The report commented on "inspirational leaders who work selflessly ... to build their dreams, and at cultivating political allies in their ceaseless struggles for funding." A page later it said CYGS is frequently criticized because it "consciously undermines other agencies in pursuit of its own goals."

"This is a business," says Valdivia, "like any other business. But we deal with people - their hopes, their futures. Not one of my staff will tell you that we are in this for personal gain; we haven't had a raise in years. The kind of people that work with me see beyond themselves."

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