What Addiction Recovery Can Teach Us About Leading Change

What Addiction Recovery Can Teach Us About Leading Change by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by StaxNet, Available at www.morguefile.com

Fifteen percent of American servicemen were actively addicted to heroin while serving in Vietnam. This was the report brought back by U.S. Congressmen Robert Steel (CT) and Morgan Murphy (IL), who had traveled to Vietnam in May of 1971. Their report shocked the American public, and President Nixon responded by creating The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. The goals of this office included prevention and rehabilitation, but Nixon also wanted to know what happened to these servicemen after they came home.

The system The Special Office set up included comprehensive and required testing for all servicemen before they returned home. What they found was a bit worse than the congressmen had reported. Approximately 20% of the servicemen self identified as heroin addicts! Before they were sent home they were treated and rehabilitated in Vietnam.

As requested by Nixon, this team tracked the servicemen in the U.S. As was widely known, once someone is addicted to an illicit drug, the odds of becoming re-addicted in the first year are extremely high. Some estimates indicate the rate is 90%. The Vietnam servicemen, though, were different. Just 5% became re-addicted in a year. Ninety-five percent remained clean.

Why? How could it be that the rate of re-addiction had been flipped upside down? Was it something about the servicemen? Something about the treatment program? Something about their loved ones at home? No, it was none of these. The reason so many of these servicemen stayed clean holds a valuable lesson for leading radical change in organizations.

The key to their success is deceptively simple. The U.S. servicemen became addicted and were treated for heroin addiction in Vietnam. Their addiction developed and thrived in a very different environment: the climate, the plant and animal life, the culture, the local foods, the purpose for being there, the sounds, the daily routine, and (to a lesser degree) the people they were with. Virtually every aspect of their environment was unique to that setting. Once they returned home, all of this changed. The addictive behavior no longer had a supportive environment.

Why is this important? The addiction they had developed in Vietnam was psychologically and emotionally tied to that environment. In many ways, the chemically-dependent servicemen consciously and sub-consciously manipulated their environment to enable the addiction. For an addiction to work, you have to “create” an environment that facilitates the addiction. This includes setting up a network of friends, creating sources of money, daily routines, and so on. However, once the servicemen were treated and detoxified they returned home—to a totally different environment. The psychological and emotional ties to the environment were broken and could not be recreated in the U.S.

So what does this have to do with leading change? The need to change presumes something is currently not the way you want it to be, and things are the way they are because the environment facilitates it. Let me put it another way. You’ve got a problem in your organization. You want it to change. First, you have to recognize that the problem exists because the environment (including you!) facilitates and even encourages that problem to exist.

What is it? What in the environment facilitates and encourages that behavior, attitude, or belief? It is rarely one thing. It is a whole network of things that facilitates this. If you think it IS one thing, then stop and ask yourself what it is that facilitates THAT! Needless to say, exploring this can get quite complex. I encourage you to make this a team discussion and to give yourself plenty of time for discovery.

In the end, you won’t have the luxury of moving your organization from its current location to a radically different environment (although Hawaii or the Virgin Islands would indeed be nice). That’s not the point though. Every problem exists in an enabling environment. Changing the problem requires changing the environment.

Perhaps you have some examples of this from your personal or professional life. Please share.

Note: For more on the experiences of the U.S. servicemen and The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention see this story written by Alix Spiegel.

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