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EMPHASIZING THE GREATER GOOD

April 1, 2007
by RONALD J. HUNSICKER, DMin
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Important traits need to be passed onto the next generation of addiction treatment leaders

Two characteristics have distinguished first-generation addiction treatment leaders from leaders in other areas of healthcare:

  • Many addiction treatment leaders have been diagnosed with the disease of chemical dependency. Thus, leaders have been more than passive participants simply doing their jobs; they have been living out a commitment to ensure that others have the same opportunity to participate in lifelong recovery.

  • In addition to their individual commitments to successful treatment center operations, addiction treatment leaders have had an overriding passion for ensuring that treatment is available to everyone suffering with addiction. They have understood that success is a shared goal—that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Except for a slight hiccup in the mid to late '80s, when a corporate culture replaced leaders’ traditional “relational” culture, addiction treatment leaders have relied on each other. They call or e-mail each other for advice; they train clinical staff for each other; they encourage subordinates to accept positions at competitors; and they refer patients inappropriate for their programs to organizations with appropriate programming.

They did not learn to work together in any business school or from a business magazine. This has been their way of life because of their personal history and shared mission and purpose. For the past 40 years, camaraderie has been their dominate trait and natural tendency. But it remains to be seen whether the next generation of leaders will share this quality.

There is never a clean break between one generation and another. Many leaders straddle both generations and can share their wisdom and experience. Nevertheless, it seems fairly certain that leaders diagnosed with the disease of chemical dependency will not be the majority in the next generation of leaders. A combination of factors supports this conclusion, not the least of which is the need for more education, specific healthcare management training, and credentials, and a continued lack of clear career paths for recovering individuals who want to pursue addiction treatment management.

So without a majority of leaders with a very intimate connection to chemical dependency treatment, it's not clear whether the next generation of addiction treatment leaders will have the sense of mission, passion, and calling to ensure that the entire addiction treatment enterprise moves forward. It remains to be seen whether the next generation will have the same commitment to reaching out to their colleagues, sharing resources, and growing—and willingly sharing—leaders so that all organizations will become stronger, that the whole indeed will be greater than the sum of its parts.




This sense of camaraderie needs to be taught to or rubbed off on new leaders without a personal connection to the field. Our society values personal achievements and absolute loyalty to employers, which does not leave much incentive to commit energy to the larger good. To make it more likely that this trait, which has played an important role in the first generation, appears in the second, I offer two simple suggestions to start the process:

  • Because the concern for the larger enterprise's well-being grew out of leaders knowing and interacting with each other, each addiction treatment leader should commit him/herself to spending time and getting to know two colleagues every year over the next five years.

  • Our history is linked to individuals, so we need to find a way for new leaders to interact with leaders who have the qualities of Dennis Gilhousen, Harry Swift, John Schwarzlose, Ben Underwood, and David Hillis. We need to record our history and ensure that new leaders “rub shoulders” with first generation leaders.

If the parts become more important than the sum, then we are doomed to repeat our hiccup history of the late '80s. Our most energized, our most creative history has been shaped by those moments when individually and collectively we truly believed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Ronald J. Hunsicker, DMin, is President and CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. He is also a member of Behavioral Healthcare's Editorial Board.

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