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No time to reinvent the wheel

October 1, 2006
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The field is at least ten years behind in leadership program development

The addiction treatment field is “graying.” Consider the results of a University of Georgia national longitudinal study (between 1995 and 2004) of more than 400 privately funded addiction treatment programs. It found that while the percentage of directors/CEOs 50 years or older in 1995-1996 was 30%, that figure climbed to 54.8% by 2003-2004. In 1995-1996, 35.6% of directors/CEOs had 20+ years in the field and 10.5% had 25+ years, but by 2003-2004 52.6% had 20+ years of experience and 27.9% had 25+ years. And a study by the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) in 2004 found that 33% of its membership will retire within the next five years. Clearly, the field must start developing new leaders.

Calls for a National Approach

This spring NAATP held the first of what is hoped to be many forums on leadership development and succession planning, recommending that national behavioral health organizations need to:

  • coordinate their efforts in succession planning and leadership development;

  • highlight and emphasize leadership development concerns at the national level; and

  • develop a model curriculum for boards and leaders to assist in training tomorrow's leaders.

Yet national efforts at leadership development face several hurdles:

The lack of a sense of urgency. Most of us acknowledge the leadership development problem, but too few are willing to give the crisis the attention and importance it deserves.

The lack of a unified voice. The field needs a coordinated effort among NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals; NAATP; and many others to lobby for funding for leadership development programs.

Intrusion of other priorities. Policy concerns, legislative reforms, and industry consolidation are at the forefront of the field's attention. Leadership issues the field will face in three to five years are not receiving deserved attention because of immediate survival issues.

The clock is ticking far too fast. Leadership development requires three to five years to mentor and nurture the next generation of program directors and leaders. By the time the field develops curricula and training personnel, the crisis already will have come. We are at least ten years late in leadership program development.

An Example of Success

Despite these concerns, we must be realistic, not fatalistic. The time to address this issue is now. And the field need not reinvent the wheel.

A few excellent leadership development programs can be replicated nationwide. One is the North Carolina Addiction Fellows Program, created by the Addiction Recovery Institute in 2002. Each year 20 fellows (60 over a three-year period) have been engaged in a rigorous personal and professional training program designed to create a cadre of talented, learned, and passionate leaders in addiction services.

The program's original goal was to identify “public agency” professionals in danger of burnout and leaving the field, and to find a way, through exposure to quality training, to help them regain their passion, stay in the field, and advance their careers.

The program's first phase involves core education and training. Phase two is a mentoring program, using Parker J. Palmer's A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Participants spend time with their mentors and with other fellows, along with completing session assignments, writing in journals, reading/CD listening assignments, and reviewing other discussion materials. Fellows meet five times a year, discussing leadership principles and team building, how to move from learning to action and research to practice, and how to work together with other leaders. They also participate in regular telephone and e-mail discussions, as well as recreational activities such as picnics to develop close bonds.

In the program's first year, 80 applicants vied for 20 slots. Most were line workers with some supervisory responsibility. In the second year, many managers participated. By the third year, all management levels were represented. Each year participants sought something “spiritual” to reignite their passion for service, as several were perilously close to leaving the field. All participants, however, have remained in the field. Many participants have become involved in national, state, and local peer programs that advocate for changes in healthcare laws and policy reform.

At least three factors contributed to the program's success: recruiting and keeping a quality faculty, creating a safe environment for fellows to be open and honest with each other, and nurturing consistent, passionate, and loving leadership. This year the South Carolina Addiction Fellows Program began and will continue for two years. For more information about the Fellows Program, contact Jim Van Hecke at (828) 859-2277 or


Leadership development is the number-one issue facing the behavioral health field. Time is running out, as today's leaders are retiring in the next three to five years. The problem can be resolved by a major national effort in recruitment, mentoring, and training of tomorrow's leaders, but it must be done now if the field is to avert a management and leadership crisis in the not-too-distant future.

David J. Powell, PhD, is President of the International Center for Health Concerns, Inc.