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Dr. Drew: Caring Makes for Better Leaders and Better Living Dr. Drew: Caring Makes for Better Leaders and Better Living
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August 26, 2021

Dr. Drew: Caring Makes for Better Leaders and Better Living

Dr. Drew, Board Certified Internist & Addictionologist

Interviewed by Kevin O’Neill, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Acertitude

Dr. Drew Pinsky, known nationally as “Dr. Drew,” is a globally recognized media personality, board certified internist, and addiction medicine specialist, dedicated to helping people improve their lives. His unique leadership experience sits at the rare intersection of medicine (he still treats patients!) and media. He’s explored different broadcasting avenues since the 90s, from radio to reality TV to Tik Tok Q&As, known for Loveline, Celebrity Rehab, Teen Mom, and more.

From serving patients at the height of the AIDS epidemic, to leading a successful medical practice, to directing Las Encinas Hospital’s Chemical Dependency Services, Dr. Drew’s passion for tackling tremendous life challenges head-on is unparalleled and inspiring. Following an instinct for what the public needed at a moment in time, his varied journey has always aligned with one belief: the secret to a good life is serving others.

Dr. Drew sat down with Acertitude Co-Founder and Managing Partner Kevin O’Neill for a candid conversation on the Brilliant People Podcast about how leaders, their teams, and their communities can thrive emotionally and mentally – during a global pandemic, and every day.

Listen to the podcast:

Q&A with Dr. Drew

Good leaders thrive in the face of change

O’Neill: There are few people with a career like yours, running a successful medical practice while simultaneously hosting multiple radio and television shows. What’s driven you to carve out such a distinctive path for yourself over the years?

Dr. Drew: I've never been satisfied doing one thing — I've always been interested in creating, exploring, and doing things that other people might be afraid to do. I began my medical career in the early ’80s by diving into the fight against HIV/AIDS. Dr. Fauci has been a leader in this field from the start, and I remember him pushing for young physicians like me to get out there and inform people about this terrifying new disease. It was one of the darkest periods of modern history, but it drove home for me just how important education can be when it comes to public health.

In the '90s, I had the opportunity to host a radio show, Loveline, answering people’s health questions one night a week. I jumped at the chance. This might sound strange, but it felt like a duty to my community. It allowed me to reach a wide audience and help people I would never have come into contact with otherwise.

“In the '90s, I had the opportunity to host a radio show, Loveline, answering people’s health questions one night a week. I jumped at the chance. This might sound strange, but it felt like a duty to my community.”

As my career in media grew, I still focused on medicine. For decades, I often worked 20-hour days, juggling radio and TV alongside my day job: running an inpatient and acute care practice and outpatient practice. I also moonlighted at a psychiatric hospital, which led me to one of my true passions — addiction medicine. I love the crossroads of medicine, psychiatry, psychology, family systems, and neurobiology — all used to overcome addiction and chart paths to true recovery. I become the director of addiction services at the psychiatric hospital, and addiction became my primary focus until around 2010.

I never expected to be where I am today, and to be honest, I’m not sure what my career will look like in 10 years. But what drives me hasn’t changed from when I was an emerging doctor in the ’80s. I always wanted to help people. If I get to have some fun and make some money along the way, that’s just a bonus. At the end of the day, if I’m doing something that changes things in a positive direction for people, I'm where I want to be. That drive has always pushed me to keep climbing ladders and lead the charge for care wherever I go. 

Good leaders show up for others struggling to show up for themselves

O’Neill: As a leader in the public eye and an advisor to people and patients over nearly four decades, your career has been defined by people looking to you for answers. What qualities have helped you most when taking on this role as a guiding light for so many people?

Dr. Drew: The most important word in leadership is a deceptively simple one — care. If you want people to listen to your expertise and follow you, whether they’re patients or employees, they need to know you care.

“The most important word in leadership is a deceptively simple one — care.”

That care doesn’t just extend to others, either. It should also be directed back at yourself. As you move into higher levels of authority, it can be easy to get worn down and burnt out. This is bad for your mental health and can also reduce your capacity for care.

One thing I’ve found, though, is not everybody agrees on what caring looks like in a practical sense. It doesn’t mean tangling yourself up in other people’s distress or taking on everyone’s burdens for yourself. If you blur the boundary between your own pain and the pain of others, you can lose perspective. You need to be clear-eyed enough not just to recognize problems but to have the fortitude to address those problems directly.

It can be tempting to tiptoe around an issue if you think you might hurt someone’s feelings or upset them. In that instance, however, you’re not being of service to anyone — you’re simply avoiding confrontation. Not everyone has the skills or the willingness to do this. But if you’re serious about taking the lead in helping others, it’s a skill you need to build. Part of cultivating that skill is practicing therapeutic wonderment, which is related to how you communicate. Using phrases like "I've noticed" or "I'm wondering" has a great capacity to encourage people to open up. 

I’ve also found that many people have the opposite problem. Instead of avoiding hard conversations, they take on too much, trying to solve everyone’s problems, even if they don’t know how. I certainly have had times in my career where I've overextended myself. But I realized that the point of leadership in these types of roles isn’t to solve everything; it’s to be present and listen actively. People need encouragement and honesty, but at the end of the day — especially with issues like mental health — they’re the ones who will have to do the work of fixing themselves. Not you.

Good leaders protect people’s health and well-being

O’Neill: You mentioned mental health and addiction – two areas where you’ve been the most active in your career. How has your approach to treating these conditions changed during COVID-19? Do you think it’s made it more difficult to get people the help they need?

Dr. Drew: To say it’s been a challenge is putting it lightly. Even before the pandemic, anxiety and depression were on the rise, and now, the number of people who have seriously considered suicide is even greater. Our younger generation – specifically those among the ages of eight to 15 – have had a particularly tough time. These are prime years for developing social skills and navigating peer groups, and they’ve been isolated from that. Not to mention they're being told that hanging out with friends could possibly kill their grandparents. It's not an easy thing for kids to hear, and it doesn't help with their anxiety.

Substance use disorders have been exacerbated during this time, too. With lockdowns, many people have become dependent on unhealthy things like drugs and alcohol – using them as emotional crutches. This past year, we’ve all been encouraged to live, in a way, like drug addicts — to isolate and shelter in place. It was necessary for our physical health but was destructive to our mental health, especially for those already struggling with substance use disorders. People are inadvertently overdosing at horrifying rates: 81,000 in the last 12 months.

“This past year, we’ve all been encouraged to live, in a way, like drug addicts — to isolate and shelter in place. It was necessary for our physical health but was destructive to our mental health.”

Despite all the pain, there have been positive changes because of the pandemic. Online accessibility to care has gone way up, and I hope it stays that way. One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to do radio was because of the ability to reach people who might not have sought help otherwise. Amazingly, the first step to getting help is now just a click away. However, we need to get bodies back in physical spaces now that the world is slowly opening up. You can’t amplify and regulate your emotions through Zoom the same way you can in person. If you're trying to change behavior – especially something like addiction that’s so hard to change – you can’t go it alone. You need someone there for you — whether it's a coach, therapist, or mutual aid society. We’re all going to have to buckle down and work even harder to help people make full recoveries post-pandemic.

Dr. Drew’s 3 Steps to Recovery: 

1. Decide to change

2. Do the work

3. Establish habits

Even with unprecedented circumstances, the basic path to recovery is the same. A person has to decide to change, then be willing to do the work to sustain it in the long run. Developing good habits and creating ritualized structures around this change are important parts of recovery. Habit, in particular, takes repetition. Once we establish habits — and it takes a long time, usually more than six months — they tend to stick. Furthermore, they contribute to our character, helping us build a sense of mastery and competence, which can be enough reward to keep the process going. 

Despite the struggles of the past year, I truly have a lot of hope for the future. I think most of us will come out of this with a greater appreciation for what we have and what we can do in every aspect of life. There’s going to be a pent-up demand for socialization and togetherness. Joy, to me, is a shared positive effect that is experienced in a physical space.

“I think most of us will come out of this with a greater appreciation for what we have and what we can do in every aspect of life.”

Going forward, what I want to do is continue to motivate people to seek treatment. Sometimes they don’t have perspective on what’s really happening in their own life — that’s where my ability to be of service comes in. By continuing to push for greater access to mental health and by increasing the visibility of addiction recovery, I can encourage people to have a better approach toward taking care of themselves and others.

Believe it or not, I am eternally optimistic. I am a cheerleader for humanity, and I do believe we have an uncanny way of making our way through things, whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic or everyday struggles, like addiction and mental health. While it continues to be an uncertain time, we will get through it if we work together and take care of each other.