What I Learned About Leadership From Addiction Recovery

The recent loss of an important early mentor has focused that reflection on something unexpected -- how much my recovery from addiction shaped my approach to leadership and social change.
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After recently leaving my job after two decades, I have had time to reflect on my leadership journey. The recent loss of an important early mentor has focused that reflection on something unexpected -- how much my recovery from addiction shaped my approach to leadership and social change. In fact, I've realized that those lessons are the cornerstone of my leadership.

Growing up, I was a sensitive kid who struggled with a troubling combination of insecurity and depression. I was 10 years old when I first got drunk, enjoying the euphoric escape from those feelings and the substitution of a false confidence that felt pretty real in the moment. As I entered my teens, I came to depend on alcohol and drugs to either numb or manifest the ugliness I felt inside. There was never enough, and not much else I cared about. My life was urgently organized around getting high, and not getting busted for using or dealing. Over time, the drugs exacerbated my depression and insecurity rather than masked them, and my life was headed off the tracks. I was fortunate that a cascading series of mistakes, failures, and busts led me to an in-patient treatment program and a new life. I was just 16 years old.

Recovery from addiction is not an event, but an ongoing process, and one that reveals new lessons and insights over time. I can still feel the lure of instant gratification and escape but I've found healthier ways to address the insecurity, depression, fear, and stress that lead me there. I've never mastered it, but I've practiced for almost 30 years and continue today. This process has been the North Star that has guided me personally -- and as I understand better now -- professionally. Here are some of the lessons that have guided me personally, as a CEO, and as a public leader working for social change.

There are no silver bullets, people's needs change, and relationships matter more than programs.
Perhaps this set of insights has shaped my work on solving social problems more than any other. I myself benefitted from a combination of in-patient treatment, out-patient treatment, support groups, therapy, friends, and mentors. Each could claim me as an outcome. While all were valuable, none were sufficient. If I were to measure their effectiveness, I would rank them by the extent to which they helped me establish relationships that existed outside of institutional frameworks and were there when I needed them most. It was nurturing, supportive, and relevant relationships with peers and mentors who could nurture me, push me, and hold me accountable that have made the greatest impact. And it was mutual support, I did the same for them.

My journey and many friends' journeys have not been straight lines. If my "outcomes" were evaluated one, three, and five years out, there would have been very different results. There was not linear causality from any one intervention to outcomes, but a rollercoaster ride during which I needed different kinds of intervention and support at different times until I finally settled on a positive, sustainable path. I also know that what worked for me would not work for everyone. I needed a more flexible, nurturing program. Others need a more prescriptive, rigid program (which I would have rebelled against). I've also seen people require more than one opportunity to succeed. In recovery, when someone fails and comes back, we welcome them rather than shun them. We also understand that some people, due to mental illness, trauma, or other issues may find success more elusive, and we keep welcoming them back. I argue often with policy makers and funders who think there are simple, singular solutions to help people living complex lives with changing conditions and circumstances. In the end, it is the support of people not programs that make the greatest difference. The best experts are those who've been there.

Mentors Matter Most
One of the first things one does in recovery is ask someone to be a sponsor -- a mentor to show them the ropes and who is willing to be on call whenever temptation or trouble threatens. I was fortunate in my first weeks to meet a 36 year-old husband, father, and cattle-buyer from the Milwaukee stockyards, who agreed to take me under his wing. It was the first adult relationship, especially with a male, where I felt someone really accepted me fully and had my back completely. He loved me and cared for me, but he also held me accountable and called me on my shit when I deserved it. He would make time for me whenever I needed him, even when I called him in the middle of the night, which was not rare. I learned many lessons from him, but I also learned the value of finding someone who you aspire to be like, learning how they got there, and asking them for help. I applied this same lesson when I started my career and continue to do so, engaging mutual support from peers, an executive coach, and many mentors without whom I could not have succeeded and sustained my leadership.

Own your mistakes and failures
Another element of addiction recovery is to make a list of all the things we had done wrong to others, and a list of all the people we had harmed. After reflecting on and building the list for some time, my next step was to sit with my sponsor and share the lists with him. It was a scary, humbling experience. At the end, I waited for him to judge me and instead he laughed, "That's it? You're great. I love you. Let me tell you about my list." In recovery, we put our cards on the table all the time, admitting our weaknesses, failures, and struggles and learn that we are still OK and worthy of love. We learn that we are not alone, and that few of us are unique in terms of our failures and struggles. It was a powerful lesson that it is OK to screw up, as long as you own it, learn from it, and grow.

In my book and public speeches on leadership, I tell a story that includes sharing a list of "things I suck at." I share it because I learned that owning this list enabled me to hire different people, delegate better, and welcome feedback more. I explain how scary it was to first share this list with colleagues until I realized that the things you suck at aren't a secret. If you are always late, everyone notices. If you dominate conversations, everyone notices. If you avoid conflicts, everyone notices. Audiences laugh in recognition when I share this. And after my talks, many people share with me some of the things they suck at. Of course, it is also important to be confident about what we are good at, but I've found being transparent about challenges is liberating, and often opens up others to share their authentic selves with me rather than judge me.

Welcome and don't judge others' stories
In treatment at the age of 16, I resided with a group of peers very different from myself. They came from different communities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations. There were individuals who came out of juvenile prison, gang members, teen parents, head-bangers, jocks, goths, and hippies. I walked in thinking I knew them all from my instant, biased judgments. Then I began learning their stories -- their passions, struggles, and dreams. I realized how ignorant my biases were, found what we held in common, valued our differences, and felt grateful for the privileges I now understood that I had despite my challenges. As I began going to mutual support groups, I was often surrounded by an even more diverse mix of adults. At my first meeting, I sat with three senior citizens and was scared (I'd never talked to old people) until they told their stories and welcomed mine. I learned to build relationships with all kinds of people and not to assume I knew anyone's story until I listened to it. There are people in recovery whose attitudes, quirks, or opinions can drive me crazy. I have to work at being more empathetic, patient, and accepting. I have to allow myself to be pleasantly surprised by those I've judged, which has happened many times. I've also learned never to define someone by the biggest mistake they've ever made, as I certainly never want to be defined that way.

Practice acceptance, forgiveness, and gratitude
I've learned from persevering through many struggles and tragedies, and watching many others persevere through even greater struggles and tragedies to be more accepting and grateful of life on life's terms. The serenity prayer has been my mantra for years: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. As one who is conflict avoidant, I find that I'm actually better at the first part of the prayer than the second. I know that no matter what happens, if I maintain perspective, remain grateful, and reach out to others for help, I will persevere. Most importantly, I know that I cannot control many situations, only how I react to them and grow from them. It is not easy and I can forget in reactive moments, but these lessons have helped me through many personal and professional struggles. I've become grateful for many lessons learned "the hard way."

Several years ago, a friend of mine from recovery learned horrifically that his seven year-old daughter was hit by a drunk driver while walking home from school. While she was in a coma (she eventually recovered), his rage at the driver was tempered by the fact that he had spent the previous two days wrestling with making financial amends for his own past drunk driving accident just one block from where his daughter was hit. "There but for the grace of God go I," he thought, and he did something he still finds unfathomable. He reached out to the man who hit his daughter and took him to an alcoholism recovery group. It was a deep, powerful lesson in grace, gratitude, and forgiveness. I've learned that just as I wish for forgiveness when I've wronged, I must always be willing to forgive when I've been wronged. Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping someone else dies. Forgiveness isn't automatic, it requires owning mistakes and changing, but it must always be available.

Pay it forward!
Recovery is predicated on servant leadership -- as we learn and grow, we are responsible to pay it forward. I feel that responsibility and know that I cannot deny help to someone else that has been provided to me. We share our stories, as I do now, to offer each other our lessons and hope. It was because so many people had helped me get my life on track that I searched for a way to help others and a career in public service. I've tried to apply the same lessons to share and pay forward the support I've received throughout my leadership and career.

Last October, a friend of a friend was referred to me who was in treatment for alcoholism. When he got out, we met a few times to talk, attended a recovery meeting, and I advised him on a fairly standard program for his first 90 days. It wasn't working for him, and when he rejected my and others' advice, I worried that he might not be truly ready or committed to change. He earnestly argued for an alternate path he felt would work better. Knowing that he is responsible for his own choices, I just asked him to be honest if he starts struggling and be willing to then try a different way. We've continued to spend time together and he recently celebrated six months sober. He sent me a kind thank you note for my support, but I'm also quite thankful to him for grounding me back in my story and helping me continue practicing these principles, learning, and growing.

Understanding how change happens in people's lives, seeking mentors, owning mistakes, suspending judgment, letting go, forgiving, and paying it all forward -- these are priceless leadership lessons learned I've learned in an unusual way. I'm certainly not perfect at them, but they've been a great set of insights and principles to guide my life and leadership. I'm grateful to be a recovering addict and for the person and leader I've learned to be as a result.

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