TEACHING THE PAST TO GUIDE THE FUTURE | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation


March 1, 2007
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We must actively educate new leaders about the field's history

The chemical dependency treatment field is facing dramatic and perhaps traumatic changes, although the specifics depend on who you listen to or believe. Those who make it their business to predict and prognosticate have suggested that over the next ten years, approximately 70% of the field's current leaders will retire! That's right, retire, not just change jobs.

I am included in that statistic and so are most of my peers and colleagues. Many of us grew up together. We are either first-generation leaders/executives of chemical dependency treatment organizations, or we learned from first-generation leaders. Our mentors were people like Dan Anderson, Nelson Bradley, Vern Johnson, and Jerry Diehl and, more recently, Ben Underwood, David Hillis, and John Schwarzlose. These leaders helped shape the way treatment is provided, financed, and understood.

For example, Bradley organized a multidisciplinary treatment team as an alternative to warehousing alcoholics. This model affected hundreds of treatment programs. Yet this model wouldn’t have spread without the absolute determination, unwavering commitment, and commanding presence of leaders, who moved the field to new vistas of understanding and new approaches to treatment. Leaders provide the fuel that ignites the rocket of a movement.

One of these early leaders' characteristics was their absolute commitment to the larger enterprise of chemical dependency treatment. They did not play playground-style basketball, which only showcases the star; they played a game that valued everyone and made sure that everyone was involved in every play. They readily shared their ideas, encouraged spending time at colleagues' workplaces, and took aspiring leaders under their wings.

But now 70% of current leaders will retire in the next ten years. Where will they come from, and who will fill these positions? What will they know about the field's early history? What will they know about the leaders who came before them? Will their commitment be to a larger cause—to the entire field instead of just their individual organizations? These and many other questions need to be addressed.

Boards of directors will determine a number of these decisions; retiring leaders will have some sway; and consultants will influence the hiring process. But who will be looking out for the larger enterprise of chemical dependency treatment? Who will ensure that tomorrow's leaders are connected to the leaders of today and yesterday?

To make this transition less traumatic, we all could take a few steps to ensure that tomorrow's leaders at least understand how we got where we are and who led us there.

History. The histories of associations and individual organizations, including their leaders, need to be recorded. Our oral history needs to be committed to video and/or print. Some organizations do have well-written histories that include their leaders. In fact, we should collect at least ten such histories of organizations, individuals, and associations, and make them mandatory reading for anyone hired into a middle-management or higher position in the field.

Mentoring. To avoid the playground style of basketball, which focuses on the individual, we need to instill a sense of connection to something larger. What if every new executive hired over the next ten years were contractually required to spend a week shadowing an executive from another treatment organization within their first year? Even better, what if they shadowed two executives? Hopefully this would create mentoring relationships that would facilitate the passing of institutional memory.

Perspective. It is not uncommon in the larger healthcare field for board members to accompany executives to annual conferences and workshops. That is where they are introduced to the wider and larger perspective of delivering healthcare. What if we made provisions for board members to receive an annual state-of-the-business update, as well as annual exposure to the field's history including its past leaders?

Leadership undoubtedly is our most precious, and perhaps most precarious, resource. Leaders shape the present and guide the future. We need to plan, execute, and evaluate the pending leadership transition. Remember, leadership is not just about your organization; it is about the collective effort to ensure that the vision, mission, compassion, and passion of the past are inoculated into the spirit and soul of leaders of the future.

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.