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There are many types of leadership: Femke van der Meulen at the LLP

Last Thursday, Leiden Leadership Programme (LLP) students were once again introduced to a big name with tons of leadership experience. This time, Femke van der Meulen, prison director and founder of PrisonWatch, addressed the students. The many personal experiences she shared will stay with them for a long time.

Van der Meulen's resume is rich; in addition to her current activities, she has previously worked for the European Parliament, the English House Of Lords and the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security. On top of that, she also obtained a PhD and will soon run in the European elections for NSC. In short: a chunk of professional experience and social commitment.  

‘You make me feel human again’

The first part of the lecture, Van der Meulen takes us through her fascinating professional journey. She tells how her experiences as a fresh graduate in India shaped her career. 'When I interned in India I was alone for Christmas for the first time in my life, I then started thinking "Who else is alone?" As a result, I ended up at the Tihar prison in New Delhi for foreign inmates.'  

'The prison wasn't particularly pretty,' Van der Meulen continues. 'People lived there in harsh conditions. I managed to get a conversation with a German girl. A great experience, and after our talk she said, "Thank you for visiting, You make me feel human again." Something that has stayed with me throughout my career as motivation.'

This social commitment has been central to van der Meulen's long career, which, via Brussels and London, eventually took her to Alphen aan den Rijn, where she became deputy director of a prison. Today, Van der Meulen is strategic advisor to the Custodial Institutions Agency  and is nationally responsible for the detention and reintegration of prisoners.


Because of her professional experiences, Van der Meulen decided to establish the PrisonWatch foundation. PrisonWatch provides services to prisons, consulates and governments, with human connection as its core value. The foundation tries to help foreign prisoners - prisoners detained outside their country of origin - deal with problems such as social isolation and the language barrier. 

One of the things PrisonWatch does is facilitate prison visits. 'It can be very useful for prisoners to occasionally communicate with someone in their own language. This does not always have to be about life in prison either, but can just as easily be an ordinary face-to-face conversation. Something like that already helps a great deal.' 

The many sides to leadership

The biggest lesson about leadership that Van der Meulen teaches is that there is no one kind of leadership. 'Throughout your life, you end up in different positions, working with different types of people in contexts that require different approaches.'

'In my role as a prison warden, I sometimes ended up in crisis situations, in which case I had to act decisively. In a large organisation with many people under your supervision. Quickly improvising, making quick decisions and making sure they are executed correctly is essential.'

'That is very different from PrisonWatch or the government. There, it's especially important to delegate well, leave people free to make their own decisions and have a lot of faith in yourself and your staff.'

The ultimate takeaway is that you need to learn the different ways you can be a leader. Then, in each situation, you have to sense which way is the most appropriate. The students took that home with them, along with the many interesting anecdotes and personal experiences Van der Meulen shared. 'It is very enlightening to get such a personal insight into someone's career' commented one student afterwards.

Text: Stan De Feyter
Photography: Buro JP

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