Improving the Human Condition, and Grace as a Conduit for Change

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Joe Lee

Dr. Joseph Lee spent his mornings in the inner city of Baltimore providing basic necessities to lower-income students, then he spent his afternoons treating dignitaries and elites. It opened his eyes, and he vowed on the spot to treat every patient equally. Now the CEO and President of Hazelden Betty Ford intends to uplift as many people as possible. Speaking with host William C. Moyers, he revisits those watershed moments, spotlighting the power of a hopeful story to change thousands of lives.

I'm a firm believer that the same kind of compassion and the spirit that governs our clinical care should also govern our leadership structure.

Dr. Joseph Lee
President and CEO of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

0:00:12 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, a podcast series produced by Hazelden Betty Ford. I'm your host, William C. Moyers. If you've tuned into our award-winning podcast series over the years, you're familiar with Dr. Joseph Lee. He's been a guest here before, sharing his expertise as an addiction psychiatrist focused on helping young people and their families. He's also an author, public speaker, and advocate for access to care and recovery from substance use disorders. But today, today we talk leadership, vision, and the power of telling stories with Dr. Lee in his new role as the President and CEO of Hazelden Betty Ford. Welcome, Dr. Lee.

0:00:56 Dr. Joe Lee
Thanks! Thanks for having me on, great talking to you again.

0:00:58 William Moyers
Good to see you again. Tell us quickly now that you're in this new role, what are three things personally that you want our viewers, our audience, to know about you today?

0:01:06 Dr. Joe Lee
Oh man, that's tough. It makes me feel like I'm on a dating show. [Moyers laughs] But I guess first off, you know, I've had the privilege of having experiences that have enhanced my empathy during the pandemic. And what I mean by that is when this pandemic started, I was a frontline worker. As a Medical Director. And I saw all the effects of stigma, the increase in substance use, the lack of PPE, the fear, the inspiration, the courage of our staff. And so, that's something I'll never forget. Is something about me is I am a frontline worker at heart. [Moyers nods] And I connect with our employees and our ambassadors in that way. So that's something that's very important now that I'm CEO. Second thing is I'm a big fan of Duke basketball. And Oklahoma Sooners football. I'm not a huge fan of the Gophers; I think they're—their colors are kinda like a Harry Potter—Harry Potter school. I'm just kinda kidding. [Moyers chuckles] But I like that. And the third is I'm a very value-driven person. And I'm not proselytizing. Some of this for me is due to my faith and my spirituality, but a lot of it is due to my experience. Helping people and walking in their shoes. And that's really the magic for me is the fit between my own values, my own growth as a person, and the mission of this organization and what we're trying to do.

0:02:29 William Moyers
Much of what you just shared you held onto that for a long time. But now, you are in this new role. So professionally, what has changed in your perspective now that you're sitting in the CEO chair?

0:02:40 Dr. Joe Lee
Well, what's changed is we get to finally do things. And we get to set the machinations in process of how we're gonna make the changes for the future to broaden our banner, serve more people, meet people where they're at in innovative ways. Creative ways. With better outcomes. And we're just at the cusp of that. And you know I'm proud to say that we have some early wins, you know? Nearly 90 percent of our workforce is vaccinated. We mandated vaccines before it was popular. And so we were kinda the cool kids and we're off to a roaring start. Because we believe that if we're true to our mission, we're a healthcare entity, we're gonna protect the most vulnerable. And if we're true to our DEI mission, you know, people of color are more likely to get COVID, more likely to have bad outcomes from COVID. And so I think we've stayed true to both of those things in the vaccine requirement and we've had great success.

0:03:30 William Moyers
I agree. And here we are, ready to serve the needs of people no matter whether we're in a pandemic or not. How has the pandemic affected how you see Hazelden Betty Ford's role in the world?

0:03:45 Dr. Joe Lee
Well, you see a lot of people in need. And I think it's a time of rapid change.

0:03:51 William Moyers

0:03:52 Dr. Joe Lee
And we have to become an organization where change is a constant thing. And you can't prevent change, but you can control the direction to some degree. And how fast you go. And those are the things that we have to control. And so it's very "Serenity Prayer" for us.

0:04:05 William Moyers

0:04:05 Dr. Joe Lee
There's a lot of people counting on us. To do more. For more people out there. And we're gonna deliver on that. And then with the pandemic itself, I was kind of—it's really been a privilege, again, because if you're gonna have a Physician CEO at any time, it's probably during a pandemic, right? [Both laugh heartily] So I try to look at it positively in that way. And so far so good, yeah.

0:04:27 William Moyers
Empathy and grace, that's been part of your lexicon since you and I and since you were on the set here doing interviews for our Let's Talk podcast years ago. Remind us about empathy and grace and the importance in your life and in the mission of this organization.

0:04:42 Dr. Joe Lee
Well, it's something that I observed watching people transform to become their best selves in recovery. So it's actually not me, I'm a very broken person. [Moyers chuckles] So it's not something that I'm espousing, it's something I observed as something that's magical. And these solutions come from within that person and their values. And it's sequential. So it starts with humility. And so I see these young people who are able to not take themselves so seriously. They are able to find self-forgiveness, forgiveness for others. They see themselves on a level plane with other people. [Moyers nods] And that's what humility is. And that ability to be on the same plane as others allows for empathy. Now they can walk in other people's shoes 'cause they're the same. And when they start walking in other people's shoes enough times, they recognize the frailty of human condition. And the beauty of it. They see that grace is really what leads to change. This unmerited forgiveness. Giving of second, third, fourth, one-hundredth chances. And they allow that grace to change them. And they pass on that grace to other people. And then it becomes a circle. And I've seen that change happen so many times it's awe-inspiring. So, I wish it's something that I could say I live up to or something like that, but it's really something I observe within the recovery community.

0:06:01 William Moyers
And it's something that you want to extend in terms of our mission to touch the lives of other people. Can you talk about empathy and grace in the context of serving the needs of more people? And also, as you've talked about, lifting up other voices,

0:06:15 Dr. Joe Lee
Yeah, there's lots of ways where those values apply. 'Cause I'm a firm believer that the same kinda compassion and the spirit that governs our clinical care should also govern our leadership structure and our outreach and all our projects. So it's a spirit that's gonna touch our culture all the way through. Those values.

0:06:31 William Moyers

0:06:32 Dr. Joe Lee
And we have an energized staff that's incredibly missional. And we have donors and stakeholders who are incredibly missional. And they know exactly what we're talking about. Now this dialogue is actually very sciencey. [Moyers chuckles] I'm just breaking it down into human terms, right? Human terms. But we do it in a scientific way. When we think about empathy and trying to broaden our banner, communities of color for example or marginalized communities we're trying to get in, one, we have to be very humble. We can't go in there like we're Hazelden Betty Ford and set up shop. We have to actually partner and listen to the people in those communities, because those community stakeholders know themselves the best. And they know what they need better than we do. And what we have to do is we have to be humble; we have to empathize and listen.

0:07:13 William Moyers
Mmm. [nods]

0:07:14 Dr. Joe Lee
And see if they have a need that we can fill. And so, we're really honored to have a consulting arm and digital products and training regimens and things like that where we can go to these community partners and say, 'We can uplift your voices. This is not about us.' But we can't treat everybody, how can we partner with you? How can we broaden the fabric? Because at the end of the day, we just wanna help as many people as possible.

0:07:36 William Moyers
Wow. And yet, is there a risk there, Dr. Lee? Because we are experts in a lot of ways. We've been around since 1949. But there are other treatment providers, there are other community groups, there are other public hospitals doing good work down in the trenches, how do we know what they know or how do we work with those groups?

0:07:56 Dr. Joe Lee
Yeah, again, it's really about listening. You know, as a therapist and a motivational interviewing trainer, I'm a professional listener. And we have to listen as a community. So we can't go top-down. You know. We have beautiful partnerships with, for example, Turning Point—

0:08:10 William Moyers

0:08:10 Dr. Joe Lee
—And Native American communities. And Turning Point is a Black-centric community-based treatment center—

0:08:16 William Moyers

0:08:18 Dr. Joe Lee
—And we're not trying to put our brand or label on that. We're really trying to honesty uplift their voices.

0:08:24 William Moyers

0:08:24 Dr. Joe Lee
And seeing how we can help. And we've heard from their CEO and their people, there's been a mixing of trainings. Cultural competency, skills training back and forth. And it's been a beautiful partnership. And I think we'll have many more partnerships like that. That's just one way in which we can empathize better. You know, when we have, for example, patients or clients of color, and from communities, we have to remember that a lot of the recovery movement has not been focused on marginalized communities.

0:08:54 William Moyers

0:08:54 Dr. Joe Lee
Right? And it goes down to stories. 'Cause we're an organization of stories, personal stories of redemption, hope, healing, going from despair to connection. And so, when I see for example, a white family and they're lovely people and they come to treatment, they have stories within their family. Of their grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, going to treatment. And getting sober. And when I interface with families who are immigrants or communities of color, they don't have those stories. They don't have that trust, they don't have that rapport. And we have to ask ourselves what is our role in building those bridges, helping to curate those stories and uplifting those voices? And I think we have a lot that we can do.

0:09:36 William Moyers
Yes. Tell us, in that spirit, tell us a story that I've heard before about John Hopkins.

0:09:44 Dr. Joe Lee
[laughs] Well, I—I blush every time I'm about to tell this story 'cause I've—I've told it so many times.

0:09:51 William Moyers
I know. [chuckles, nods]

0:09:52 Dr. Joe Lee
And 95 percent of the time I end up crying. [Moyers chuckles] 'Cause it's a story that I kinda lived for two years. When I was at Johns Hopkins. So, in the mornings, I would work in inner city Baltimore at these schools. 'Cause I'm a child psychiatrist. So I'd work with elementary school kids, I'd go into these schools and work with the social workers, and teachers, and work with a patchwork quilt of families there. Aunties and grandparents. To support these kids. You know, and you're doing things like making sure that they have food and bus tickets and, you know, services, and basic stuff. And then that same day, the very same day, I would go just a couple of miles to Johns Hopkins Hospital proper. Beautiful hospital, they did awesome work there. And I would then run these VIP clinics. [Moyers chuckles] Right? For dignitaries who would fly in from across the country to get their kids care. And they tried to make the care as equitable as possible, they really did. Johns Hopkins is a wonderful, magical place. But I could see the discrepancy. In the same day I was going from inner city schools to VIP clinics. And something didn't sit right with me there. And I told myself from that point to make it equitable somehow. That I was gonna treat every kid that I saw as a VIP.

0:11:07 William Moyers

0:11:08 Dr. Joe Lee
And it hasn't been a perfect process, but, I've really tried to have that as my North Star.

0:11:14 William Moyers
Yeah. Yeah.

0:11:14 Dr. Joe Lee
And it's made all the difference. It's been a blessing to me. And so, that's something as an organization I want us to have a similar North Star. And I know we have it. I know we have it. We have a ways to go, we're being very humble with our DEI initiatives and doing more. However, at our core, we speak for people who are marginalized. That is our history. That is our legacy. That's what Betty Ford did. And so I know it's in our DNA. I know we can do it. We just have to be humble enough to know that we're in the starting block.

0:11:43 William Moyers

0:11:44 Dr. Joe Lee
And that we need many partners.

0:11:45 William Moyers
How does lifting up other voices attack stigma?

0:11:50 Dr. Joe Lee
Well, in many ways, because it makes treatment more accessible, possible, for people. It makes hope accessible. It raises up stories.

0:12:01 William Moyers

0:12:00 Dr. Joe Lee
You know, a lot of the power of AA and the connection and empathy are these stories. Of individuals. And we have thousands, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people that we've touched that way. And these stories open doors for other people who have some similarities. Or can identify. And—and the broader we can have a network of stories that are powerful, the more lock and key, in a lock and key way, we can open people's hearts. And reduce stigma. Because now, they're not looking at drugs, they're looking at people. People that resemble them. People who have a background like them. People who've been through adversity like them. And that's what we want. We wanna uplift those stories so that we become that inclusive culture where people want to come to us. People see us as that ray of hope through addiction and treatment.

0:12:51 William Moyers
Yeah. Thanks for sharing it the way you just did. I've always seen stigma as something that we smash by standing up and speaking out. But mine is only one story. Mine is only one perspective. On that note, you've also talked about many pathways to recovery. And the applicability of that. In terms of inclusiveness. Could you—could you share that with us?

0:13:11 Dr. Joe Lee
Yep. You know, what the science is telling us is that we need to engage with people. You know, recovery is a long-term journey—

0:13:18 William Moyers

0:13:19 Dr. Joe Lee
—There's many ups and downs through it. And so, it's not trying to hit it out of the park all the time. No matter where people are at, can we meet them where they're at?

0:13:27 William Moyers

0:13:28 Dr. Joe Lee
You know? And can we flex and be humble in our approaches, scientifically and otherwise, to give those people support? And what the science says is recovery capital. Can we amplify the recovery capital? The resources they have within and without to make themselves successful.

0:13:43 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:13:43 Dr. Joe Lee
In their journey. And I think we can do that. In fact, I think that's also a big part of our core DNA. That's been the magic of Hazelden Betty Ford is our ability to really harness recovery capital in people. And I think we can do so much more with that.

0:13:56 William Moyers
So how are we going, or how are you, going to measure success or progress over the course of the next year, or two, or five?

0:14:04 Dr. Joe Lee
You know, instead of how many thousands of people or tens of thousands of people we've treated, I want a metric where we can say how many millions of people have we reached?

0:14:14 William Moyers
Mmm. Mmm.

0:14:15 Dr. Joe Lee
How many millions of hearts have we opened?

0:14:18 William Moyers

0:14:18 Dr. Joe Lee
'Cause how many millions of lives have we affected in some positive way? To think broaden that just our brick and mortar direct treatment—

0:14:26 William Moyers

0:14:26 Dr. Joe Lee
—Think about all the value that we have, our digital content, our graduate school, our publishing arm, our research center. You start to integrate those divisions together and you have really an unstoppable force of healing. And we can impact millions of people every year. And that's who we should be.

0:14:45 William Moyers
Last question before we wrap it up, Dr. Lee, on more of a personal note again. [Dr. Lee chuckles] Now that you're the President and CEO, I don't know that that's gonna leave you much time to see patients. To see those young people who really were affected by you and you by them! [Dr. Lee nods] And your parents, how are you gonna satisfy that caregiver, that—that doctor in you?

0:15:07 Dr. Joe Lee
You know, I may not be able to do it in the same way. There's a—there's a self-gratification that comes from clinical care.

0:15:14 William Moyers

0:15:14 Dr. Joe Lee
You know, the thank yous you get right away, the connection, the privilege and the honor of being a very, very small part of someone's recovery journey. It's very gratifying. And—and now it's a very different world, but, that's something I thought about a lot. During the pandemic. You know, mowing my lawn back and forth during the pandemic. [Moyers chuckles] Do I throw my hat in the ring or not? And what I said is, you know, over the next ten years, what kind of servant-leader can I be? And do I wanna help one family at a time, or do I wanna help thousands? And so, that was really the decision-making process. And I'm happy to make a very, very small sacrifice. Even if you—I don't know if you could even call it that, 'cause I really see it as a privilege. It's a privilege for me to now speak for people on a larger stage. And build a team. Like, you know, people like you, and the great people at Hazelden Betty Ford. To really reach millions and millions of lives. [Moyers nods] It's an awesome honor and a privilege.

0:16:11 William Moyers
We're glad, Dr. Lee, that you did mow your lawn and throw your hat into the ring as a result. [Dr. Lee chuckles, grins] And we're glad that you were with us today. Thanks for being here.

0:16:19 Dr. Joe Lee
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

0:16:20 William Moyers
[turns to camera] Dr. Joseph Lee. And thanks to all of you for joining us again today. Remember, addiction to alcohol and other drugs does not discriminate, but treatment does work. And recovery is possible. So, don't wait if you or a loved one needs help. Ask for help and do it now. On behalf of our Executive Producer, Lisa Stangl, and the crew at Blue Moon Productions, I'm your host, William C. Moyers. I hope you'll join us for another edition of Let's Talk. See you soon.

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