Leadership is a quality I’ve always admired. Every parent, teacher, community member or friend that I’ve regarded as a true leader has taught me something very special: We can learn something from everyone we meet.
I have always taken this idea to heart, and it often surprises people to discover that some of the most important teachings I’ve learned have been from my fellow addicts. What’s even more shocking to some is that these are often life lessons we can all benefit from, whether we’ve struggled with addiction or not.
Here are a few important things I’ve learned from brave individuals recovering from addiction that we can all put into practice — not only to help us become better leaders, but to become our absolute best selves.
It’s easy to judge, but it’s braver — and kinder — to be accepting.
I think we’re all guilty of at least occasionally leaping to conclusions about someone new. But it’s so much more fulfilling to accept others as they are.
“I’ll never forget when I first got to my treatment facility,” recalled Zach, who recently accomplished one year of sobriety. “I had just gotten out of my intake with the nurse, and she introduced me to someone.
“He said, ‘Hey, friend! What are you here for?’ And I told him.
“He said, ‘Don’t be ashamed — we’re all addicts here!’ That’s something that’s always stuck with me.”
James said he also met a lot of wonderful people while he was in treatment, and their unwavering support helped him tremendously.
“The wall I had built kind of started to come down,” he said. “It was beautiful because here I was with a bunch of strangers, but yet in some form or fashion, I could relate to every single one of them… It was very freeing.”
Lesson in leadership: Openly accepting others and offering them your support will earn you the respect and admiration of everyone around you.
It’s OK to be vulnerable.
Sally always found it difficult to open up to people, and her addiction treatment encouraged her to get in touch with feelings she didn’t want to face.
“I had to get in tune with my emotions and knock down my wall,” she said. “For me, a big challenge was opening up and crying.”
Although it wasn’t an easy process, she learned that not only is it healthy to be open and honest about your feelings, but people will be accepting and supportive.
“I got more comfortable, because there were people there who were ‘like me.’ The setting has to be supportive and comfortable, and people have to care.”
Lesson in leadership: A great leader not only fosters a supportive community, but is also someone willing to be free with their own emotions.
You can always, always, ALWAYS help others.
Zach certainly didn’t expect a big part of his recovery journey to involve helping others, but he’s grateful it turned out that way.
“I was scheduled to leave at the end of July last year,” he remembered. “I talked to my therapist and we decided I should stay a bit longer. I ended up staying for 57 days.
“Those last few weeks I wasn’t there just to be there — I was helping other people grow. We had AA meetings every night and helped people through the 12 steps.”
Even during one of the most difficult times in his life, Zach found an important way to help the people around him. And in doing that, he helped himself in ways he would never have imagined.
“To have the skills I learned in treatment with my newfound mindset from AA — just kind of seeing things in a different light — really opened me up to be more accepting of things, to not freak out over the little stuff and react the right way.”
Lesson in leadership: A good leader takes every opportunity to coach and help others, and the rewards are extended to both parties.
No matter what you’re going through, you’re never alone.
I often ask people in recovery if they ever thought before treatment that there were people out there who could relate to their struggles.
I know I certainly didn’t, and neither did Sally.
“You’re so involved with hiding your addiction because you think it’s wrong,” she admitted. “I thought I should have been able to handle my drinking… When it got out of control, I didn’t want to tell anyone about it because I should have been able to control it. And I didn’t want to burden anyone with it… It’s a vicious cycle. We can’t solve it ourselves.”
But in treatment, she learned something that I wish everyone realized, and is perhaps one of the most important lessons any of us could ever learn: There are people out there who will support you. You’re never really alone.
Lesson in leadership: It’s critical to recognize when you can’t handle everything on your own, when you don’t have all of the answers, when you need some extra help. Being imperfect doesn’t make you a poor leader — it makes you human. And recognizing those times when you need the support of others is a trait of a dependable leader.
As Sally told me, “We’re all going to be a work in progress forever, and that’s OK.”
About the Author
Michelle Peterson is a proud recovering addict. She is fighting to eliminate the stigma against those who suffer from or have suffered from substance abuse and addiction. She created RecoveryPride.org to spread messages of hope and help to those in recovery, those wishing to be in recovery, and their loved ones. When she isn’t building the site, she enjoys running and crafting.