Locked Up Potential: Thief, Prisoner, Soldier, Priest
By The Army Leader Team
Does the leadership style or the lessons learned in one institution translate from that organisation to the next? Paul Cowley MBE is a man whose life has been spent working in and around different institutions; he served time in a young offenders’ prison until a chance encounter with an Army recruiting officer in 1972 saw him join the Royal Artillery and serve nearly 17 years. Since leaving the Army he has spent his last 23 years as a priest in the Church of England.
Paul has led a colourful life since leaving the military in 1992 at the rank of SSgt. He was a personnel trainer to the rich and famous, smuggled women’s underwear into African prisons, founded several charities assisting those in, and released from, prison, and advised successive governments on prisoner welfare. Throughout these experiences he has sought to develop an understanding of people as holistic individuals with mental, physical and spiritual needs.
What Paul feels has unlocked his potential more than anything else was his relationship with God and subsequent ordination as a priest in the Church of England in 2002. Diversity and Inclusion is a topic close to the military’s heart in these trying times, and not one without its controversy. We spoke with Paul to discuss what his experiences have taught him about leadership, his new book ‘Thief, Prisoner, Solider, Priest’ and what a life of service has taught him about people.
Humility and Service
The Army Leader: One of the points that I picked up from your book was that you focus a lot on the need for humility and ‘servant leadership’. How has this influenced your thinking as a leader?
Paul: Leadership is always about the other person isn’t it? You know the divide between OR’s and Officers and I’ve seen that in so many other ways. Senior ranks and officers going to the back of the queue for food, it’s a simple thing but it’s a really important one. You know when you’ve been on an exercise and you’re starving, then scran arrives in a Bedford and everybody rushes for it. When I was a young gunner, I remember seeing the Sgt, SSgt and CSM all waiting to get the lads through and that had an impact on me. I thought what are they doing? Why don’t they eat first? I thought ‘get in there’! Get what you can and move on! The Army taught me that that’s not the way. It’s modelling it isn’t it. Soldiers see a lot of stuff. It’s very important to model and live it [servant leadership]. That’s easier said than done, because when you are fed up and tired and hungry, you want to eat because you’ve got more work to do than the lads, but you wait.
From the Army I went and worked in the private gym sector as a manager and so I had many staff looking to me for leadership. Many of the members had big egos as well as the trainers. To me it’s where one’s integrity comes in. It’s about doing what is right despite the pressure you may be under from bosses and clients. As a director of two charities and subsequently, on the Boards of several others, I have always had Directors to be accountable to and working in teams is often a humbling experience. You can do very few things on your own so being a team player is important for most of us.
You refer to a person being holistic. What do you mean by that and does the Army help someone holistically?
Most people accept that we are body, mind and soul. But holistically, I think that the Army probably fails in one area. It teaches you physically and mentally, but the spiritual aspect is often lacking.
Physically, the Army taught me well and I am still benefiting from it at my age. I’m still fitter than most of my peers. The Army did that – absolutely kicked the living daylights out of me at 21, and as you know once that’s in you, for most of us, it never leaves. I can sit here and think I need to go for a run, but I don’t really want to, I’m running a food bank at the moment and it’s really hard work, but there’s something in me that goes you know what, I’ll run back home, my wife can drive back. Thatinstilled self-discipline has never gone away and I’m 64 now, and it was the Army that developed that in me.
Mentally, the Army instilled perseverance into me. I can beat myself up a little bit still. I want to get things done. I’ve got a strategic mind developed by the military and I never had that before. I have leadership skills which I never had before. I might be a little abrupt in my leadership style for the church, but not for the Army. I can be direct, but I wouldn’t ask anybody to do anything I couldn’t do. All that stuff came out of the military. But for those 17 years in the military I never developed any spiritual insight whatsoever.
I know chaplains and padres are present in the Army but they could be more courageous because we are holistic beings and they have an important role. As you know I was not Christian for nearly 40 years so I’ve been in that camp for a long time. Not that you’re going to wave your hands and throw Bible verses everywhere. Recognising that we are holistic beings is really important – so that we develop those three aspects – and unfortunately I think the forces fall down on spirituality.
I think the issue comes about because the padres are officers and so straight away you’ve got this barrier with rank. I work a lot with the military and supporting the chaplaincy departments with the Alpha course, and we have a whole division for it now where we support them all over the place, operationally and at home. But it’s trying to get them, despite their rank, to relate their faith to the lads. You know, for all the years of my service from 1976-1992, I never really had a padre speak to me – that’s 5 regiments, 2 tours of NI, the end of the Falklands. I was your typical Sgt, let’s put it that way, I was one of the lads, I was a good soldier but I was a man of bad character. I think I may have scared a padre away because I may have have insulted them, been rude to them when they came up to me… teased them. Padres didn’t hang around in the places I used to hang around in. The Battery bars, the operational tours… I never saw them. And why didn’t somebody come up and talk to me about faith?
Is there something that is born out of a holistic physical, mental and spiritual approach?
Yeah, it’s like tools in a tool box. Physically, I can still get up and run 10 miles, not as fast as I used to, but I can go from sitting to do a 10-mile run. That’s a tool that I still have that the Army has given me. The mental capacity to be able to work things out, to establish charities etc, I can sit on my own and work stuff out, the Army gave me that tool. What I was lacking before was counsel. There is a bit in the Bible, in the book of Proverbs that says, ‘Plans fail through lack of counsel, but with many advisors they are successful’. That’s scripture, but that’s leadership skills. In the Army you are under authority and decisions are made for you whether you agree or not, you may also have a moral predicament to face. But in my Church environment I will often seek advice from colleagues and friends in order to get the best outcome and I will pray and read the scriptures which is a tool I never knew about before. I was a good solider, I came out with exemplary conduct and medals, but inside I was completely lost because of lacking the spiritual aspect. For some, they may see God as ‘Who is this guy sat on a cloud with a big beard who spoils all my fun, and calls me a sinner’. But the more I got to know him the more I trusted Him and the more vulnerable I was able to be. That’s faith, I have a relationship now with somebody I trust and who I know has got my back. It’s not chance, it’s not fate, its providence. God is looking out for me. Can I explain that after being a priest for 18 years, not really, I just know it happens because I see the results in my life and they weren’t all of my own making.
I think we miss a real opportunity in leadership within the military to holistically develop our men and women. I think it would help them within the military and I think it would definitely help them upon release.
Do you think people are scared to discuss religion, because of multi-cultural Britain? That people do not address faith of any type because of a fear of being non-politically correct?
That’s interesting you say multi-faith. I think that the concept of multi-faith is really different to what some people think. It’s generally not people of faith who have the issue. I work in a multi-faith environment, the Chaplaincy for HMPSS is a multi-faith chaplaincy and so is the military. The head of the Muslim faith in the MOD is a really good friend of mine. I did some work with him and we have some great chats. He isn’t scared to talk to me about faith. I went with him to a conference in Dubai, which was all Muslim [attendance] except me. But nobody was scared to discuss faith with me. Unfortunately, it can be people of no faith who struggle with trying to be PC. Like banning the nativity at Christmas because it may offend the Muslims when Muslim communities are generally fine with Christmas. I met one of the Sheikhs in Dubai and we had this whole conversation about my testimony, he was really interested in it, they all know who Jesus is and accept him as a great prophet. They know about the New and Old Testaments; they weren’t frightened to share. There were commonalities but we accept we are different and the idea of multi-faith is just that, it’s a box of different faiths together, not a blend of just one.
I am not a Muslim and don’t wish to be one and my friend is not a Christian and doesn’t wish to be one. That’s mutual respect and if you can get to that place and you can have some fantastic chats. He’s been in the Army eight years, so we both give out army banter. That’s two strong faiths coming together and we accept one another. I pray, I say grace before I eat, he bows his head, and that is multi-faith, it’s about not being scared. So, I don’t get this stuff where we are timid about it, because other faiths aren’t. Institutional Christians seem to be scared about talking about it, in case you might offend. In 1 Corinthians 1v 18 it states: ‘The message of the cross is foolish to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ So this conversation might get offensive, it’s not meant to be, for those who have no tolerance for it. I think it is about dialogue and conversation and not being scared to believe. But in the effort to remove the offence we unwittingly remove the substance.
Do you think that people complicate spirituality, seeing the external organisation as opposed to seeing something that is within an individual?
Yes, I do. I think that’s the success of Alpha because it demystifies the institution and gets back to basics. It’s like a basic military course, signals or shooting. I found out I was a good shot, I’d never fired a weapon in my life before I joined, but I found I was good at it and so I became a marksman and then a sniper, it’s a progression. You don’t start at the top in anything in life, you do the basic course. I don’t think we teach the basics [of spirituality] and I don’t think we are honest enough to answer the questions that a solider in the barrack room may have. And religion, you use that word, has caused a lot of trouble. You only have to look at films on Netflix’s about religious wars or look at the Troubles in NI but that’s man made its caused by cultural/gang type behaviour. People are not good at embracing other cultures, races, languages, faiths. I think for some people a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, so I just think that for young soldiers joining now have no idea about faith a lot of the time. Their parents don’t know anything of it, their grandparents don’t. I didn’t when I joined, not at all. But faith can make you stronger because you find a sense of peace and direction in a way you may not have had before.
My friend Eric became a Christian as a CSM and was still an Army boxing champion. He would say that being a Christian has helped him make the decisions he’s had to make; in those difficult situations he has been guided by his faith. He’s been tested, as the Army will test you in certain ways; those little fiddles that could be done that we all know about it, that he’s said no to. He’s been confronted and said no. That’s when your strength of character comes out, when everybody else is saying yes and you say no. That’s leadership. It’s about doing the right things when things get tough.
There is no reason as a leader that you can’t have the conversation with a solider and say ‘Why not explore faith? Find out about it. Don’t listen to others. Go and do it for yourself’. The Alpha course, is free and now it’s online. You can be put in a group from people all over the world. It’s a fascinating course to do and I’ve done hundreds of courses in the Army but none on God so Alpha is fun and informative.
The Stereotypical Padre
There is an archetypal stereotype of padres within the military and of priests in the Church, how important is it to stay relevant to your audience and how do you seek to do so?
That’s the problem really, some soldiers find it difficult to relate to the padres and to priests but I think things are changing. I am involved through the Alpha Forces ministry, mostly the Army, but also Tri-Service. The type of characters coming through now in the Chaplaincy are not that classic character that I remember who spoke very poshly, who used words that I couldn’t quite understand, who were in a completely different sort of class bracket to me. I just couldn’t relate to them and they couldn’t to me, whereas, I believe that’s changing with the characters that are coming through, they are much more willing to connect to the lower ranks.
As a priest I have been attached to the Life Guards, in Hyde Park barracks, because they didn’t have a permanent chaplain so I was asked to support for a while. It was great fun, but obviously they hadn’t had a chaplain with my background before. I think it was easier for the lads to relate to me and it was fun surprising them. However, trying to encourage people spiritually is really hard work. It’s almost as if a shutter comes down, and I wonder why that is. I don’t quite understand why there is a void of spiritual interest, a fear or embarrassment around it. I don’t understand it, nobody will talk to you about it or answer questions about it. The combination of the military and the Christian faith feels more holistic and I definitely feel more whole with it.
The Alpha course is an introduction to the Christian faith. It started in the 1970’s and was developed over time and in 1990 Reverend Nicky Gumbel catapulted into the success it is today. Since 1993 more than 29 million people have tried the course in 169 countries. It’s been translated into 40 plus languages and now runs in very part of the global Church, including the Catholic, Orthodox and all main stream Protestant denominations. Just as you might do a basic course in the military on weapon training, the Alpha is a basic course on God. It teaches about the life of Jesus – love – forgiveness – repentance. We all want to be loved and we all want forgiveness. It’s really important to be able to forgive yourself in lots of ways before you can forgive others. It gives you an inner strength, which I didn’t understand before, to have someone or something bigger than yourself that you can turn to.
Before I became a Christian, I relied on my own inner strength. It was my default position and I relied upon my own counsel. And it just doesn’t work, you need something outside of yourself. When I left the Army, I was in a bit of a state as I lacked a sense of purpose. I didn’t have PTSD’d, thank God, but when I came out I was pretty purposeless. I’m not whinging at the Army, but I was purposeless until I found faith.
Is there a way of seeing somebody’s potential and being able to inspire somebody to have the hope that they can change and grow?
To give you a real-life analogy – I am right-handed and I have a lazy right eye. When I first went on a firing range they slapped a SLR rifle into my right shoulder, because everything is right-handed. I said to the sergeant, ‘I’ve got a lazy eye, it’s difficult, can I try it left-handed? ‘Don’t be so effing stupid, the cartridge will hit you’. But because of my bad eye I couldn’t get the grouping that was needed. The next day we went to the ranges and it was a different SSgt and I said, ‘Staff, can I try it left-handed?’ all he said to me was, ‘Yes, but be careful of the ejecting cartridge case.’ I switched, and immediately had a better grouping. That SSgt took a risk with me and from that moment I was inspired and even went on to become a sniper. That SSgt made a decision and took a risk on me and got the best out of me. That’s leadership.
Being aware of something that somebody else needs; Isn’t that leadership? Giving hope to people struggling is a wonderful thing. Whether you’re a solider or a priest. I can offer advice or counsel to people, whether they take it or not, on moral issues, on death, on life, on birth, on marriage, or having affairs. I’ve covered them all. It’s about pointing people in the right direction. It’s about investing in your people, whatever institution you work in.
Johnathon Aitken, an ex-Conservative MP, who did 8 months in prison for perjury, is a friend of mine and together we did a paper for the government about [prisoner] aftercare. Having prepared the paper we couldn’t think of a title for it but then we decided on ‘Locked Up Potential’. Because inside most people, inside most men in prison, there is such potential. They are often bright and sharp. They may not have had a formal education, but they are clever. They’ve just been directed in the wrong way. Some of the things they make in prisons are extraordinary. It’s the same with the military in some ways; soldiers are bright, some are exceptional and we can waste that potential when they leave the forces. So it is really important that ex-military get help with the direction in their lives. If you are in that position make sure you seek good counsel from people you trust.
In the book of Proverbs it says, ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’. [For] men and women in the prisons and for some in the forces, it’s really important that they get some hope because a lot of them are in hopeless situations through divorce, PTSD, grief and because they may have no counsel. If the heart gets filled with hope, then you believe that you might be able to change.
My friend, Eric Martin said to me, ‘Paul, you can be a decent dad, you know that don’t you… you can be a faithful husband and God has a plan for you.’ Those words gave me hope. It’s been a bumpy road, but the scriptures, the Bible, the hope goes into you and then you start to think, ‘maybe I could take on the responsibility of having a child without messing it up’. That hope starts to rise up and to me that is inspirational. People see things in you that you didn’t see in yourself.
Belonging and affiliation
That links to a theme throughout your book about the need to find belonging. You talk about it in the prison context of young men seeking gang affiliation. What is the role of belonging in leadership?
I’m a Chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs and a lot of men who convert to Islam whilst inside do so because they want to belong to something. It’s not always because of the faith, it’s often because it’s a strong group and they want to be a part of something. Even the Imams recognize gang culture in the prison and talk about it openly.
When I joined the Army at 21 years old, I was a toe-rag. The Army reshaped me. I was part of a team and I loved it. I was part of a squad, helping one another to be the best we could be. And you think ‘goodness me, I’m valuable, I’m an important link in this chain.’
The Army embraced me. It was my family, it fed and watered me, paid me, brought out the best in me, it’s mad at times but it gave me a sense of purpose. Being told, ‘I’ve got a job for you’ is powerful. The Army often spots your potential. But it’s about a leader seeing something in somebody. I know that God can work in extraordinary ways, taking me from where I was to where I am now. The Army did a big chunk of that, but my faith took me the rest of the way. That is why the book is called ‘Thief, Prisoner, Soldier, Priest’, they are the four aspects of my life. But the latter part has been holistic, giving faith to all the leadership skills of self-respect, courage. And when you wrap that around a core of faith, I think it is pretty powerful.
One of the points that comes out is how to stay relevant. How do you make your experiences relevant to the young soldier in front of you with the stereotype he has of a priest in his head?
I am generalising but the average solider has this preconceived idea of what a priest is like. When I go and speak to soldiers they have no idea I’m a priest. They can’t believe that I am twice divorced, and an ex-prisoner. And then they ask me, ‘How did you get from that to that?’ and when the interest sparks we can have a conversation.
I am in a privileged position as I am an ex-solider of nearly 17 years’ service. It gives me credibility despite being a priest when I talk to them. My experience as an ex-offender and my northern working-class background also enables many soldiers to relate to me. I am happy to meet with people in their environment, in the mess bar and have a drink with them. I don’t judge them if they swear. I don’t do it myself anymore but I don’t judge them for it. If I was the Padre and the lads were doing a 10-mile run, I would wear the kit they were wearing and do it with them, then at the end of it I would talk to them about being knackered and about faith. It’s a leadership thing of not asking anybody to do something that you can’t do yourself. But if you are in the gym or carrying some lads webbing or at the front, you can get their respect and then you have the opportunity to speak into their lives.
That doesn’t mean you have to become like them. Some volunteers who I have taken into the prison systems will give a talk and be swearing as they try to relate to the lads. I will say to them not to swear or be vulgar or crude, ‘You are a Christian, just relate to them and be yourself’. So for me I can go into a Sgts Mess or Battery Bar and have a few drinks, but I might not get into the crude banter I used to. I will start a conversation on anything with anybody. I may not know the answers but I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t, to say that I’m not sure. It’s about building a connection and making faith relevant. I may not convert you, but I’m just going to tell you my story and tell you where to go for more information.
When you start describing Jesus to people as somebody who was radical and who took on the authorities, they see him in a different light. Jesus turned water into wine – Jesus was a leader; he preached the sermon on the mount about the poor inheriting the earth. Leadership is like that; you have to be relevant to people otherwise who are you to me? I don’t really know you? You can have position, authority and command but you still need to relate to people. If they step over the line, you can take them to one side and place in boundaries. That generates respect for you and not just your position. As a SSgt I always wanted people to do things for me out of respect for me, not just the badge on my arm. When I was running a gym, if there was a task, I would involve my team. I want to do it that way, not through fear or punishment. Using the rank when I had to, but having people follow you because you are a good leader is far better. They will follow you if they respect your style of leadership.
I often have young people say to me ‘Paul you are very vulnerable when you speak’, the book is very vulnerable. Vulnerability is a really attractive, it makes people want to listen. Tell them if you struggle, because likely they do to. Everybody is unique but we usual struggle with similar things. If you share your experience with people it may help them.
The Price of Prison
You now do a lot of work with those in prison, running charities to help those both inside and outside. I was taken by a point you made about the average person making 2000 decisions a day, but a prisoner making only 200 and the subsequent overwhelming effect that being released can have. Are there any parallels that you have observed with the military there?
A lot of those who leave the military end up in prison. [With Caring For Ex-Offenders] I work in every single one of the 138 prisons in the UK [as well as those in] 50-60 countries around the world. In the UK increasingly there are more and more men coming out of the military with a lack of equivalent civilian qualifications and also with some mental health issues and tragically they can end up committing crimes.
I was a Rapier detachment commander; I was a tank driver. You don’t really get those offers when you go to a job centre and say, ‘I used to drive a Centurion, I was a CPO Ack’. You know, all those abbreviations that we could talk about for hours and it’s really hard to translate that stuff, the management side, the leadership skills, the responsibilities you had. During the Falklands campaign I was in charge of a Rapier Detachment, and that’s a lot of responsibility, sat on top of a hill manning a multi-million-pound missile system and the responsibility for turning the key. The flip side of that is that the forces is an institution and many life decisions are made for you. Your accommodation, your food, your duties are all preplanned and so when you leave and become a civilian it can be overwhelming as you have to deal with new things which you took for granted.
It’s also really hard to transfer that skill set over when they offer you a job in Tesco or Sainsburys and being an unemployed ex-military person can be very depressing. You [may] come out with a series of addictions that you might have hidden in your uniform; porn, drugs, gambling, alcoholism. All my family, as I mention in the book, were alcoholic, fortunately I’m not but I certainly drank too much in the military. When I came out I was at a loss, I suppose. I’d have a few dark thoughts, and then I would go for a run. But by 10 a.m. I’d done an 8-mile run, I’d read the newspapers and I no plan of what to do for the rest of the day. There was no structure. And then no faith for me to go pray for help or anyone to ask for help in a structured way. Sometimes there’s not a great difference between the men in prison and the men on the parade square. The average age of the men in the prison is from 21-26 and if you look at the stats it’s near enough the same for the Army. I believe that men and women leaving the forces need a lot of support to make the transition into civilian life otherwise they can face many difficulties similar to people leaving prison. It’s ironic I know but we shouldn’t underestimate the support structures within the military.
How have you found that the skills you learnt in the military have helped you lead since you left the military?
I learnt leadership skills in the military. Having them hammered into me or put in situations where I had to make a decision. You know whatever you do, make a decision, if it’s the wrong decision learn from it but make one! I’ve taken that into my role within the church. While there are crossovers in the institution of the Army and the Church, people were a bit shocked at some of my leadership skills and decision-making skills because they were possibly a bit abrupt. For instance, making decisions results in some collateral damage, in a group of church leaders they say, ‘Goodness me, collateral damage?’ I have had to adjust my leadership skills for a civilian mindset.
Conversely, the Church has taught me to be more caring. I have developed more empathy for people on the margins and those suffering with mental health issues. Gone are the days when we say ‘Pull yourself together!’
As you know, the Army’s biggest resource is its people. That’s its biggest USP. But they’re messy and that’s why I think leadership can be messy sometimes. You’ve got to trust people and take a risk, a chance, and if they fall down then help them get up again and if they’ve been an idiot then [help them] learn from the mistake. This is how I grew in my leadership skills. With that empowerment comes risk and chance, the opportunity to fail, as one Commanding Officer said to me once ‘don’t make the same one again, learn from it and get around it’. I’ve had that advice given to me in different stages throughout my career in the military.
Mentoring and BRIDGEing
You talk a lot about Mentoring and the use of the BRIDGE technique. How do you use this in your work?
Mentoring is really important, it’s like the glue that binds. You take an ex-offender, who has become a Christian and is starting to change in the right direction. You can give them a flat, a job but if you don’t help them in mentoring, they will more than likely fall apart. Twenty-three years of experience in this sector informs me that at some stage it will fall apart; they can get behind on paying the rent, and they often get overwhelmed by the 2,000 responsibilities they face daily.
The charity Caring for Ex-Offenders sets up a few mentors for each ex-offender, because we believe that one mentor can’t do everything. The mentors may include somebody from business who can discuss entrepreneurial ideas and job issues, while a spiritual mentor is able to sit and explain bits of the Bible and pray through difficulties. So when they have a problem with their house or their bills are overwhelming and they have to make all these decisions that they never had too in prison the mentor will talk it through with them.
Having a coffee or chat with somebody can take the pressure out of the situation. The insurmountable mountain is broken down into smaller steps. On our CFEO mentoring training, we use the acronym BRIDGE to teach mentoring skills and the mentoring process, Build Rapport to put in the building blocks needed to create a positive, trusting and safe mentoring relationship and developing friendship. Invest in the relationship so you can move towards identifying and achieving goals. Direction: Direction and its partner, Goals, function as two halves of the same stage. The aim of Direction is to begin to identify the direction your mentee wants to go – it’s about mapping out the future they want for themselves and working out what’s really important to them. Goals: to identify your mentee’s specific goals and plan how to reach them. Empower: focus on how independent your mentee has become and empower them to continue their journey.
Do you think your military training enabled you to bring success to your charitable work?
Most definitely, when I became a Christian and went on staff at HTB I was made Pastor for Prisons. I didn’t really know what that was, but straight away the military mindset came in useful. I thought ‘I need a map’ and I put a map of the UK on the wall and put a red dot on every single prison in the country. I went and visited every single prison and when I persuaded a Chaplain to run an Alpha course I came back and put a green dot on the map. With the combination of my faith and with the skills the Army taught me I have a strategic mindset that has developed my ability to be innovative.
My success and my leadership skills are down to a combination of life experiences, having served in the military, and becoming a man of faith.