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Growing Tomorrow's Leaders Is Today's Priority

January 1, 2006
by Thomas G. Durham, PhD, LADC
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Many years ago, when I was working as an alcohol and drug counselor in an inpatient setting, there were four of us working together, all in our 20s, who had just entered the counseling field. One day, our program director pulled us aside and said something like, “You are the future leaders of this field—you all have the potential to have my job someday.”

It was an encouraging thought and showed good foresight on the director's part; those words were rarely heard back in the early days of addiction treatment. He also told us that as counselors gained experience and broadened their responsibility, they would be duly compensated. Wow—imagine that! Unfortunately, for many, the compensation part never materialized. And although I have lost touch with those other three “rookies,” my guess is that they left the field a long time ago.

My first boss was onto something that should have taken hold. Unfortunately, with many changes in insurance coverage and our continued struggle with fighting the stigma and discrimination that go with addiction treatment, our field has not made many of us rich. We stuck it out for reasons of passion, not compensation.

However, those of us who did stick it out are dwindling in number, and to complicate the issue, we are at a point where a large number of current leaders are contemplating retirement. Many of us believe we are in a potential crisis situation for the field, and we ask ourselves, “Are we doing a sufficient job in training and grooming younger professionals to fill the void?” Unfortunately, we seem to be losing many potentially skilled young supervisors and future leaders because of demands to do more with less, and for less-than-adequate pay.

I recently had a conversation with one of the current leaders in our field and another former boss of mine, David J. Powell, PhD. He spoke about his fear that we are experiencing a talent drain of potential leaders, and it comes at a time when the tried and true are beginning to phase out of their careers after 25 to 30 years in the field. Dr. Powell feels strongly (and I agree) that we need to do something soon to fill an anticipated leadership void.

Skills building

We need to be proactive by creating a career path for those entering the field that includes continuous development of skills along with incentives to stay on that path. Granted, many people leave the field because they soon realize they are not cut out for it, but many also do so because they just do not see a future career in it. I have no empiric proof of this, but I believe that the time and money spent to develop and keep staff will come back in multiples to treatment programs. I'm sure no one would disagree that with skilled and committed staff comes an increase in high-quality patient care.

Fortunately, we are at a time in our field when an increasing amount of research on effective treatment is occurring. Evidence-based practice is the nom du jour in today's treatment lexicon. We are learning more about what works best with whom, and continue to change what we do to best meet our patients' individual needs. Treatment programs have been discovering that the best treatment practices, based on empiric evidence, can result in successful outcomes. Those of us who have stuck to our guns with statements such as “this is how we have always done it” are discovering that how we always did it wasn't necessarily the best way. Change is indeed difficult.

To ease this difficulty, we need to provide professional growth opportunities for all levels of treatment personnel. However, we need to start by garnering the support of the current leaders (those of us nearing retirement) and to train those who will become the leaders of tomorrow. Learning must be perceived, from top to bottom, as an essential component of workforce development—a vision that all must embrace. We need to pursue a profession-wide belief that learning means positive change and high-quality patient care.

We need to commit to nurturing new leaders through a career path that promotes the ongoing development of not only clinical skills, but also skills in clinical supervision, organizational development, team building, and leadership. We need to see a future leader in each new hire entering the field. We need to “raise the bar” in training those in leadership positions, especially clinical supervisors, in an effort to foster staff development on an ongoing basis.

Existing programs

Several leadership training programs exist in our field. Three such programs are the North Carolina Addiction Fellows Program, the Michael E. Townsend Leadership Academy, and the Leadership Institute, sponsored by the national network of Addiction Technology Transfer Centers (ATTCs). The Leadership Institute involves a series of leadership training workshops consisting of one-week immersion training followed by six months of mentoring; the training is being offered at most regional ATTCs.

All of these programs provide a good start. However, we need much more training—not only more leadership training, but also training opportunities for staff at all levels. Our field needs to provide ample opportunities for development as individuals envision and follow a career path of professional growth.

My first boss was wise in his encouragement of his new hires. He helped ignite a passion that many of us already had when we entered the field. Unfortu-nately, his vision of where the field was going did not pan out. Maybe with better planning and foresight for what lies ahead in our field, we can use our passion to make his vision a reality.