Recovery Community Organization Leadership

For more than a decade, I have regularly corresponded with Mr. Hossein Dezhakam (HD), founder of the Congress 60 recovery community within the Islamic Republic of Iran, on the subject of addiction recovery and the challenges faced by leaders of recovery community organizations (RCOs). A recent increase in questions posed to me about RCO leadership has prompted me to review my past communications with Mr. Dezhakam (HD) and my earlier writings on this subject. Below are excerpts from these communications (used with permission) and my own writings (WW) that I hope will be of interest to my readers.

On Unique Leadership demands of RCOs 

A leader in other organizations leads through thoughts; however, a recovery leader must rule the hearts. In other words, management of other organizations can make changes by issuing edicts, raising salaries, or through discipline, but a recovery leader must communicate with affection within and without. Such a leader must be able to turn enemies into friends. A wise person is constantly changing enemies into friends and an ignorant person is in the business of making enemies. (HD)

Mr. Dezhakam’s observation about leading from the heart reminded me of the following observation of Van Jones in his book Beyond the Messy Truth: “You can’t lead people you don’t love. You can’t rally people you don’t respect.”

Messiness of Movements; Leadership Vulnerability

Movements, including recovery movements, are about struggle, which means they are not for the faint of heart. Movements are turbulent, messy, unpredictable and, at times, very primitive. Movements can magnify the best and worst in us. We went through such messiness in the early days of the new recovery advocacy movement—rampant paranoia about which person and organization would lead the movement, underground gossip rather than direct communication, fears of secret deals being made, and the scapegoating of early leaders. I think these processes are endemic to all important social movements, but they can get magnified in a community of recovering people or in other historically disempowered groups. It’s a form of historical trauma that gets acted out in our intragroup relations. That’s why nearly all of the recovery mutual aid organizations before AA self-destructed, as did many of their leaders. It wasn’t from the lack of a personal recovery program; it was their failure to find principles that could rein in these destructive group processes. (WW)

Vulnerability of Recovery Advocacy Leaders

Such [leadership] roles can bring deep fulfillment, but they also come with hidden risks. Vulnerability may be an aspect of all leadership roles, but this may be particularly pronounced in organizations organized by and on behalf of persons from historically disempowered groups. I recall one of my friends once noting of the civil rights organizations in which he was involved, “We don’t elect leaders; we elect victims.” He was referring to the tendency of these organizations to scapegoat their leaders while the leaders are living only to later reify them–often after their deaths. Within any stigmatized group, we want our leaders to excel—to model the best of what we can be. And yet the shadows of shame and inferiority buried inside us get projected onto our leaders in the form of doubt, criticism and attack. (WW)

It is the awareness that standing by the hundreds and thousands reduces the enormous vulnerability that comes from standing in isolation to confront stigma and its multiple manifestations. Put simply, it is not safe for us to stand alone. Attention can make the most stable recovery tremble. The glare of the camera and the beckoning microphone can be as intoxicating as any drug. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, we are doomed in the face of such self-absorption—whether from overwhelming feelings of unworthiness or, perhaps worse, from the feeling that we are the most worthy. It is only when we speak from a position of WE that safety and protection of the larger cause is assured. When asked, “Who is your leader?” we should declare that we are without leaders or that we are all leaders. (WW)

The risk is the virus which can penetrate the recovery leader. This virus is deviation from the original recovery path. What I am trying to convey, is that a leader must have proper capabilities and capacity. Avery poor person who receives a huge amount of money in an instant may lack the capacity to adapt to that money or fame and can be easily destroyed. This is exactly why AA and NA recovery leaders warned the next generations that they must avoid some issues to be safe. I have known recovery leaders who were so kind, humble, and spiritual. They were always with their people but once they became famous, they changed! People couldn’t meet them easily anymore, they hired secretaries and it wasn’t easy to have meetings with them. They asked a lot of money for their time, and at last they hurt their group. They steered their group to darkness. (HD) 

RCO Leadership Qualities

Leaders must have minimal defects of character so that they can be duplicated. A flawed leader will only duplicate bad models. Worldview [personal values and philosophy] must be the strong suit of recovery leaders so that they can identify and fix their defects. They must sustain their health and be on sound financial footing. (HD)

Working within recovery service roles does not require complete perfection. If it did, none of us would qualify. But it does require reasonable congruity between the message and the life of the messenger. The leader must by definition be a recovery carrier—a person who makes recovery contagious by the quality of their character, relationships and service. (WW)

Leaders of a recovery community must model the service ethic or belief that is at the heart of such communities. It is a prevailing belief within Congress 60 that: Others planted and we ate; we must plant so others could be fed. This is a figure of speech of course and it means that others helped us to gain our health and we must serve others on a voluntary basis too. That begins with the actions of the leader. (HD)

A leader must have a long-term vision. A wise man once said: if you are looking to get results within three months, then plant greens, tomato, or watermelon. if you are looking for results in one year, then grow sheep. If you are looking to get results within 10 years, then plant a tree. However, if you are planning to educate a human, then plan for a 100 years. Therefore, our jobs requires a long time and is continuous. We will hit challenges and obstacles along the way for sure. But eventually success will embrace us in the end. (HD)

Ethical Leadership

Recovery leaders must be spiritual leaders as well. Thus, ethics play a unique role in a recovery leader. In my opinion, a recovery leader must not hunger! A hungry ego is incorrigible. A person could be poor but not hunger (desiring more and more) at the same time. Beware of those whom hungry eyes! They will never get satisfied! They have eaten all the foods and they are dying of fullness! Still they are looking for more to eat! They are like someone who has stopped smoking heroin 20 years ago, but for the past 20 years their thoughts and eyes have been fixed on heroin. After 20 years of sobriety they still dream about Heroin! They suffer from a hungry ego. (HD) 

On Value and Dangers of Charisma 

Charismatic leadership functions in a way that people listen to the leader out of deep trust. This type of leadership can lead to a faster pace in terms of getting jobs done. It can prevent debates and divisions, and people will give up many things upon the request of the leader. As for the risks, if people chose the leader wisely this type of leadership will produce great results, however, if a bad person with charisma is chose then the results will be devastating and destructive. We can see this type of bad choosing in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or companies or even countries, take Adolf Hitler for instance. (HD)

Charisma is a blessing and a curse to recovery mutual aid and recovery advocacy movements. It is something of a paradox that such movements often cannot survive their infancy without charismatic leaders, but cannot reach maturity without transcending charismatic styles of leadership. Alternatives to cult-like leaders require concerted leadership development efforts and the progressive decentralization of decision-making throughout the organization. This does not mean that we have to challenge and extrude our charismatic figures to achieve maturity, but it does mean that we have to help such figures redefine their roles and relationships—in short, to join the movement as members. When that doesn’t happen, the organization/movement moves towards incestuous closure and the risk of eventual implosion (WW).

RCO Leadership Development

A recovery leader is often one who never thought about becoming a leader when he started the work, but he ends leading. Recovery leaders must gurgle like a spring. They must contemplate deeply while taking benefit of consulting with others. They must utilize elders for legislation, just like Congress 60’s watchman which consists of 14 elders. Then the leader must take an approach in which all the members get familiar with these elders and respect them. In return, the elders must treat people with affection and honesty. Therefore, in absence of leader (illness or even death) this counsel can take control. The leader also can choose an individual out of this counsel to take the leadership role in case of his absence. (HD)

I believe a non-governmental organization (NGO) must be planned somehow to engage all members in related activities. It should not be up to few people to plan and execute everything. That’s why all members of Congress 60 are active in a special group, and these groups are called legions. For instance: treatment legions, musical legions, tree planting legions, Marzban legions, cleaning legions, cyber legions, and financial legions. (HD) 

On Financial Sustainability

In each branch, those who are financially gifted (travelers or companions) can take part in financial legions with payment annually. Their task will be to plan for receiving donations from members of that very branch. The members of each financial legion are 10 to 50 members for each branch. The gathered donations will be allocated as below: 80 % of it will be allocated to the same branch and the rest will be sent to central office in Tehran (just like Federal system), and this 20% will be allocated to research or helping other branches. As you can see, in our system it is not only up to me or few others to think about financial status. We have hundreds of other members whose job is to fix the budget of branches. We have many members within Congress 60 with more than 15 years of recovery, many have achieved financial status and therefore they are helping Congress 60. (HD) 

On Leadership Transition

Perhaps the greatest of such challenges is the transition in leadership between the founders of recovery advocacy organizations and the second generation. That is always a litmus test of viability, just as it is in recovery mutual aid societies. Organizations and larger movements that are successful find ways to decentralize leadership through structures that provide for leadership development and rituals that facilitate regular succession. Even under the best circumstances, these transitions can be difficult for the organization and for the individuals involved….The movement itself is best conceptualized as a marathon run as a relay—people engaging and disengaging as needed over a prolonged period of time. Many people will come and go or return at particular times in the life of the movement, while others will be part of the daily struggles of the movement for the duration. That’s just the way social movements are; this is not to say one style is superior to another. I am a great admirer of endurance and tenacity, but movements also need those who help in short bursts. (WW)

On Recovery Community Organization Sustainability

A.A. found creative solutions to the forces that had limited or destroyed its predecessors. Through the principles imbedded in its Twelve Traditions, A.A. forged solutions to the pitfalls of charismatic and centralized leadership, mission diversion, colonization by other organizations, ideological extremism and schisms, professionalization, commercialization, and relationships with other organizations and the media.  A.A. created a historically unique organizational structure (a blend of anarchy and radical democracy relying on rotating leadership, group conscience, intentional corporate poverty, etc.) that even its most devoted early professional allies believed could not work. That structure and those principles have protected A.A. and offer a case study in organizational resilience. (WW)  

On Non-affiliation

Supporting other political or religious groups is a devastating mistake which is like an earthquake for a recovery organization. For instance: if the leader of recovery organization is in favor of blue color then the fans of red color will be against him and vice versa. We need to be friends with blue and red or in other words with all regardless of political or religious views or other ways humans divide themselves. The obligation of a non-governmental organization (NGO) is to help people without taking sides. We have achieved this goal within Congress 60 and it is a source of our strength. All sides and groups respect Congress 60. (HD)

Recovery leaders must maintain balance in all of their communications within and without the recovery organization. Their distance with outside and inside entities must be kept exactly just like the distance between earth and sun. If our planet gets too close to sun, we will burn, and we will freeze to death if the reverse happens. Recovery leader must plan in a way to be independent. They must not be financially dependent to governments or other organizations. (HD) 

On Evaluating Effectiveness of Recovery Community Organizations

The prime capital of a business organizations is money. Everything is measured by the amount of money. In a recovery community the capital is in terms of sociality. To measure sociality, we must pay attention to:

A: The increased rate of the NGO members annually! If a recovery community performs well then the rate of members must increase fast. For instance, during last year about 10,000 individuals were added to Congress 60’s members.

 B: The occupational, financial, educational and social status of the members.

For instance; when we decide to start a new building for Congress 60, since we have all sorts of people with different occupations within Congress 60, this is what happens.

One person donates bricks, another donates plaster, or girder. One takes care of electricity, and another handles the paper work or the administrative process. The sum of these things constitutes the sociality of a NGO.

 C: The popularity of the NGO in social media like newspapers, radio, TV, seminars, universities, public, etc.

 D: And last but not the least is the effectiveness of that very NGO in its own field using measurable recovery benchmarks. (HD)

Photo: Mr. Hossein Dezhakam Addressing the 2017 International Addiction Science Symposium

Of Related Interest:

Hill, T. (2005). Commonstrength: Building leaders, transforming recovery. Published by Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership 2006.