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Recognizing leadership talent

August 20, 2012
by Lori Ashcraft, PhD, and William Anthony PhD
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As the current leadership of recovery-focused organizations ages, it's important that we invest in the future

If you are reading this column, chances are you are in a leadership position. That’s good, because we have some serious things to talk with you about. We’re worried because something is happening to all of our leaders that they can’t change and that no one else can remedy: Our leaders are getting old, just when we need strong leadership to guide us into healthcare reform and expand what we have learned about recovery.

While there’s not much we can do about the age of our leaders, we can make every effort to preserve their skill and knowledge about how to lead recovery organizations and systems. We must make sure their wisdom is passed on to those who follow them. Aw, but there’s the rub! Is anyone following them?

When we look for those following our wise and aging leaders, we don’t see a big crowd of budding leaders, ready to step in, stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, and lead the field forward. There are a few, but not nearly enough.

Recently, we were on a conference call with a group of leaders who are working to address this problem. The group identified several behavioral health organizations around the country that are seeking ways to identify and develop new leaders, leaders who can infuse an organization with the values and principles of recovery. While this agreement is an important step, it does nothing to help us in filling the void.

Another group of aging leaders can be found in the peer movement. A decade ago, it was common practice for peers to work in peer operated drop-in centers but there was a reluctance to recognize the important and vital role they could play in mainstream treatment programs. The value of this peer contribution is now undeniable.  

To help with our leadership gap, we must now consider ways that peers can contribute their skills, knowledge and experience at that level. We need more people who have the courage, humility, authenticity, and vulnerability that peers can offer. We need them to lead us forward, while anchoring the value of recovery and wellness in healthcare reform.

We heard that Steve Harrington was working on the topic of peer leadership so we gave him a call. Steve is executive director of the National Association of Peer Specialists (, a post-doctoral fellow at Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, and a faculty member of the Center’s Global Leadership Institute.

Steve is passionate about preparing peers for leadership roles and quickly summarized the challenges involved:

1.    Stigma, both external and internal, is probably the toughest challenge facing peers who aspire to leadership.

2.    Training, in that existing leadership training fails to account for the unique work and perspectives of persons in recovery. However, on a brighter note, Steve tells us that new leadership theories that focus on self-awareness and the development of skills and knowledge in the areas of inspiration and motivation are well suited for peer leaders and a notable exception.

3.     Waiting around for someone else to solve the problem.

So, what can you do, right where you are, to help now?  I would suggest that the first and most important thing is that you, as a leader, must not be threatened when new leaders emerge behind you. Instead, you must seize the opportunity to invest your knowledge, skill, and passion in those who follow, ensuring your organization a legacy of leadership that can continue after you retire. Here are some ideas for doing that:

•    Identify those on your team who have the interest, commitment, and recovery values needed to become strong leaders. Start a conversation with them about the possibility of taking on a leadership position. Don’t overlook the potential that peers might offer, since they have many of the gifts that leaders need. If you need a hand developing this conversation, Steve Herrington can give you more ideas on how to recruit, prepare, and orient peers for leadership roles. Or, contact Recovery Innovations (, which offers an advanced peer training program online.

•    Orient and train your staff and peers in leadership, and then train them together. This cross-fertilization will add a rich, lasting value to the training experience.  

•    Offer some lunch and learn meetings in your own office each week, possibly to review and discuss leadership books. Herrington suggests First Rate Madness – Uncovering the links between leadership and madness by Nassir Ghaemi. A book written by Bill Anthony and Kevin Huckshorn, Principled Leadership in Mental Health Systems and Programs is another good read, since it brings many voices to the conversation about leadership. Dan Goleman’s Primal Leadership is great for beginners while Resonant Leadership by Boyatzis builds on Goleman’s work.

•    Set up a mentoring project in which you and other current leaders take aspiring leaders under your wings and teach them what you do, why, and how you do it.  This is probably the most effective way to grow leaders who already understand you and your organization. After you get comfortable with this approach, consider making exchanges with other organizations so your aspiring leaders can get a broader perspective.

•    Remember that teaching by example is the most powerful form of training. Role model the characteristics you want to see in your new leaders. Reflect recovery values in your words and actions and then, point out to others what you are doing so that they don’t miss it. If you make such teaching an intentional process, you’ll continue to help others realize more, and more powerful, “learning moments.”  




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