Reflections on Recovery Leadership

Remarks of William White

Floridians For Recovery 2021 Summit

 I regret that recent health challenges prevent me from joining you today in person but I am grateful for the opportunity to pass along some brief reflections on recovery leadership.

As new recovery community organizations (RCOs) linked themselves into a national advocacy movement in the late 1990s, we were asked, “Who is your leader?” and “Who speaks for this new movement?” Our first responses were, “We don’t have any leaders” or “We are all leaders.” Such responses reflected our distrust of the hierarchy and charismatic leadership that had doomed earlier recovery advocacy efforts. Such comments also reflected a position of humility and our desire to embrace a style of servant leadership. We have since seen people emerge as servant leaders at all levels of the recovery advocacy movement. Here are six leadership lessons drawn from that collective experience.

First, recovery advocacy is not a program of personal recovery. The history of recovery advocacy is cluttered with the broken bodies and wrecked organizations that thought otherwise. All we do in service must rest on the primacy of our own personal recovery. Recovery advocacy can flow from and enrich a process of recovery, but too often results in harm in the name of help if advocacy becomes our only medium of recovery maintenance.

Second, recovery advocacy should come with a promise and a warning label. The promise is that service at this level can be deeply fulfilling. The warning is that advocacy comes with all manner of risks to ourselves, our families, and our organizations. Effective leaders fully appreciate and consider these twin faces of public advocacy.  We must actively manage the highs and lows–the exhilaration, joys, exhaustion, frustrations, and related challenges–of this work.

Third, effective recovery leaders, those who stand the test of time, create organizations that avoid the temptations of celebrity leadership, professionalization, commercialization, ideological arrogance, and cult-like organizational closure. We achieve that by remaining grounded in the values of recovery—honesty, humility, simplicity, gratitude, respect, tolerance, service, and love.

Fourth, Effective recovery leaders avoid letting a successful tactic hijack the global recovery advocacy mission. For example, the present expansion of peer-based recovery support services could inadvertently becoming our singular focus. If that happens and these services become nothing more than a superficial appendage to addiction treatment, we will have failed the larger recovery advocacy mission. Personal recovery support cannot obscure the need to create the physical, psychological and cultural space in local communities where resilience and recovery can flourish.

We have many strategies, but seen as a whole, effective recovery leaders mobilize people in recovery and their allies to build authentic and vibrant recovery cultures. Such cultures:

  • Spring from us—acknowledging the recovery ancestors whose contributions created the space and roles we now occupy
  • Are produced by and for us
  • Represent our diversity and our shared values
  • Generate words, ideas, metaphors, stories, art, and rituals of our own creation that celebrate the recovery experience and extend a hand of hope and healing, and
  • Are owned by us.

Fifth, Effective recovery leadership is supported by the same daily replenishment rituals that have long been the foundation of recovery.

  1. Centering rituals allow us through prayer, meditation, and mindfulness to stay aligned to recovery values and maintain daily focus and purpose.
  1. Mirroring rituals allow us regular contact with kindred spirits who refresh our soul and strengthen our commitment to recovery and recovery advocacy.
  1. Acts of self-care and responsibility assure self-repair and replenishment for ourselves and those we most care about. “We must be careful in carrying light to the community to not leave our own homes in darkness.”
  1. Unpaid acts of service are ways we make amends and carry a message of hope and healing to those still suffering and to a suffering world.

Sixth, effective recovery leadership understands advocacy as an intergenerational process. The task of expanding recovery space in local communities and within the national consciousness will not be completed in our lifetime. Those who are called to this mission must show up, keep showing up, mentor those coming behind us, and then pass the torch to the next generation of advocates. That is how historical progress and effective leadership works.

My generation of recovery advocates is nearing the end of our recovery advocacy journeys. We leave the continued work in your hands and we wish each of you and your organizations Godspeed in writing the future of addiction recovery.

Acknowledgement: A special thanks to Ken Brown for presenting these remarks on my behalf.