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Calling a New Generation of Leaders

January 1, 2006
by William White and Lonnetta Albright
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Frontline professionals don't need to feel ready in every capacity to get involved

A generational passing is unfolding in the addiction treatment community. The field's long-tenured leaders in policy development, administration, clinical supervision, clinical practice, research, education, and training are beginning to disengage from their roles. Their mass exodus over the next decade will mark a significant milestone in the field's history. The future of addiction treatment and recovery in the United States will rest on the preparation and willingness of a new generation of leaders to step forward to fill the void.

On behalf of the men and women approaching the twilight of their careers in this field, we extend an invitation to the younger readers of Addiction Professional to accept the mantle of leadership. Some will think they are not suited or ready for such responsibility. But most of the leaders from the authors' generation were not ready either when our predecessors asked us to step forward. This article offers a series of leadership development prescriptions for enhancing such readiness.

Fully commit yourself to the field

People enter the addiction field through many pathways, and remain or leave for equally diverse reasons. The degree of long-term commitment to the field varies from individual to individual, and in the same individual over time. The exodus of current leaders opens an era of increased vulnerability and opportunity. New leaders committed to the field's future are needed. Might you become one of them? Consider the following questions:

  • Do I feel in my heart that service to this field is what I am personally destined to do with my life?

  • Do I feel there are better ways to respond to the needs of the new generation of clients entering addiction treatment?

  • Am I willing to commit myself to the future of this field at a level that transcends particular job roles and organizational affiliations?

If your answers to all three questions are affirmative, perhaps it is time to formalize this commitment and intensify your leadership preparation.

Orient yourself to the field

A crucial early step in leadership preparation is becoming fully oriented to the field. This involves stepping outside your role and your organization to acquire knowledge of many aspects of the field, including its history.1 Learn the core ideas, values, and service technologies that distinguish addiction treatment from other human-services disciplines.2 Familiarize yourself with the field's organizational infrastructure (table, p. 21). Learn about the core people, organizations, ideas, and service technologies pioneering new approaches to the treatment of women, adolescents, seniors, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as people recovering from co-occurring medical and psychiatric disorders (see and for key resources). Study the core people and institutions that shape drug policy and treatment strategy at the federal level (see

Leadership preparation requires transcending what might have been a parochial involvement in the field, grasping a vision of the field as a whole, and getting a sense of the state of the field's infrastructure and emerging needs.3

Develop a personal leadership vision

Once you are committed and oriented to the field, the question remains, “Committed to do what?” Aspiring leaders can formulate their own personal leadership vision by exploring these questions:

  • What core values and core service technologies of the treatment field need to be protected from future dilution, corruption, or abandonment?

  • What unmet needs must the field address in the future?

  • How can the field best reach the next generation of clients entering addiction treatment?

  • What unique assets do I possess that can nurture the field's future development?

  • What issues and activities energize me at the highest level?

  • What major contributions or lasting legacy would I like to leave in the field?

A personal leadership vision can be formulated out of the intersection of the field's emerging needs, what professionals do best, and those issues about which they are most passionate.

Study the great leaders

The best leaders do their homework—not only on technical subjects but also on the art of leadership itself. We recommend three kinds of reading for leadership preparation.

First, we recommend the biographies and autobiographies of people who have left a positive imprint on the world, including:

  • Abraham Lincoln

  • Cesar Chavez

  • Frederick Douglass

  • Mahatma Gandhi

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Mother Teresa

  • Nelson Mandela

  • Tatanka Yotanka (Sitting Bull)

Second, we recommend the biographies or writings of:

  • recovery mutual-aid pioneers (e.g., Bill Wilson and Jean Kirkpatrick)

  • treatment pioneers (e.g., Dan Anderson and Marie Nyswander)

  • research-to-practice advocates (e.g., William Miller and Tom McLellan)

  • public-education and -policy pioneers (e.g., Marty Mann and Harold Hughes)

Finally, we recommend broader works on leadership. Ask leaders you admire what they have read that has inspired and guided them.