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Jeanne McAlister: “Failure is not failure, it is just a way of being told that I needed to go in a different direction”

…I also wish that I had known that a good leader is not in front of the pack, but in the back of the pack, because I went through some tough learning experiences coming to that knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, I read the analogy of how the leader of the wolf-pack leads from behind […]

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…I also wish that I had known that a good leader is not in front of the pack, but in the back of the pack, because I went through some tough learning experiences coming to that knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, I read the analogy of how the leader of the wolf-pack leads from behind the pack and thought how true it was: At the front of the wolf pack are the old and sick members, who walk in front to set the pace, so they do not get left behind. The next group includes a few of the strongest members of the pack, who protect those in front if there is an attack. Next, there is the largest group in the middle, who are always protected from any attack, both from the front and the back. Behind them is the last group, who are also among the strongest and best; their job is to protect the back of the pack if there is an attack. Then last of all is one lone wolf, the leader. The leader makes sure no one is left behind and keeps the pack together on the right path. The leader is always ready to go in the direction needed to protect the entire pack. Leadership is not about doing everything, or even being the most visible. Leadership is about leading from behind — making sure the team is taken care of and on the right path. At one time, I did everything myself. I thought I was supposed to, or that I was the best person for every task that came up. Since then, I’ve learned to let go; other people might not do it the way I would have done it, they will do it their own way, but it will get done. We have grown so much more as an agency and a team since I have been in the back of the pack than we grew when I was leading from the front.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeanne McAlister. Jeanne, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of McAlister Institute, is a pioneer in the field of recovery. As a recovering alcoholic herself, Jeanne has used her experience to build an agency that is founded upon empathy and hope and dedicated to serving those who suffer. She has constantly advocated for responsive and needed treatment services and developed programs which have adapted and grown to meet the needs of San Diegans. In 2010, for instance, Jeanne was the first Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) specialist to be named Mental Health Person of the Year for championing programs that address co-occurring disorders and integrate substance abuse and mental health treatment. At the young age of 86, she continues to use over 40 years of experience to lead the agency to the top of its field. Through her vision, and with the help of McAlister Institute’s wide variety of programs, tens of thousands of individuals have successfully regained their lives. She is celebrating 62 years of sobriety this year.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Any “backstory” on my work in the nonprofit field must begin with the fact that I lived through my own struggle with alcohol and drug use. As a young single mother, I wanted better, but I could not seem to get there on my own. When I finally became “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” I found recovery through A.A. in 1956. I was twenty-four at the time, and back then, I was one of the only young people in the meetings that I went to, and there were a lot of old-timers who thought I was too young to be “done” yet. However, I really wanted sobriety; I got an A.A. sponsor, worked the steps, and I have not had to have a drink or take a drug since.

During my first 14 years of recovery, I built a new life and had a good career in the for-profit business world. At that point, I got into therapy for myself, and the human potential movement came into my life. While in groups, I discovered that I had a natural ability for group work and helping others in the group process. Searching for a way to do my group work for a living, I was introduced to Dr. Tom Rusk, who wanted to hire me to sell the need for drug-free workplace policies to companies. Initially, I told him that I didn’t think that the San Diego business world was ready for a woman to do that kind of work, and he might want to look at having a man do it instead. This was 45 years ago, and San Diego was still very much a man’s business world (as was the rest of the country). The minute I got in my car to drive away from that meeting, I thought, “Why did I turn that job down?” I wrote Dr. Rusk a letter that he still has to this day, it said: “Dear Dr. Rusk, I must have been out of my head, because I am the only person who can do that job for you, so I would like to re-interview with you.” He graciously interviewed me again, and I went to work for him for about five years. Over that time, he contracted with the County of San Diego to provide outpatient drug and alcohol treatment services in East and North County, and I ran the program in East County for him. Then Dr. Rusk became extremely disenchanted with the County and decided he was done working with them and quit. Well, we had all these clients we were serving whose lives were being changed as they found recovery from addiction, I could not just give up on them. My solution was to form a nonprofit corporation and fight to continue doing the work. The contract Dr. Rusk gave back to the County was put out to bid, and my new nonprofit responded and received our first contract award. From there on, it has been one new program after another as opportunities to meet the needs of people with substance abuse disorders are identified.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Discovering how many women prefer to take direction from males was one of the most interesting things that happened since I began leading the company. I would not have expected it. The good news is this has changed over the years and is less prevalent than when I first began leading the company in 1977.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was forming the organization with a group of colleagues, I assumed that others wanted to be the leader; but to my surprise, they didn’t want the responsibility! I learned that people need, or at least want the “boss” to make the final decision, so they do not feel responsible if it doesn’t work.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

As mentioned earlier, after Dr. Rusk quit, we had clients whose lives were being transformed as they found recovery from addiction, I couldn’t just give up on them. My decision to form a nonprofit and fight to continue providing them with services was my motivation. An attraction to being CEO didn’t figure into the decision at that time, except that it allowed for those services to continue. However, I am continuously attracted to the position because it gives me the ability to effect change in a way that empowers others.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

I like the “wolf pack” leadership style and believe it explains what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders. The weak and the sick are in the front of the parade (our clients); the second group is the healers and caregivers (our counselors, etc.); the third group behind the healers would be the support group (which our managers, clerks, etc.); and the leader is in the back of the parade — to support all who are in front. I read the analogy years ago and thought it served as a good representation of how leadership as a CEO works.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

What I enjoy most about being an executive is the inspiration that I get from the people around me; not just the clients, but the people I work with, as well. It is people who I enjoy most and who make my life worthwhile. When I am so sick that I absolutely must stay home, or on the weekends, holidays or when our offices are closed, I am grateful that I still have people calling me on my cell phone to get into detox and I can help them. I make my cell phone number public, so anyone in need can call me at any time. I let our staff know that I do not expect anyone to do that when I am gone, but it is my way of doing 12-step work — answering the phone, talking to a parent whose child is an addict who needs help or to someone who needs to get into detox. I don’t get a chance to do 12-step work outside of my work world. If I go to a 12-step meeting, even if I am quiet, people recognize me for my work in treatment. It not only keeps me from participating, but it can also be disruptive. I feel I can still fulfill my 12-step work by taking crisis calls. It’s my gift back for my sobriety. I both enjoy it, and it inspires me.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

As they say, it can be lonely at the top, seldom and almost always, you will not hear that you did a good job. For a variety of reasons, others don’t let you know when you’ve hit the mark, either people are scared to tell you, feel like it is not their place, etc.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO Can you explain what you mean?

I’d like to see the myth that victory or success belongs to the CEO. As CEO, you need to recognize that if weren’t for the people that work for you, you would not be in your position. If you think it is only on you, then don’t take the role of leader.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women must prove that they’re smart, whereas men are assumed to be in that position because they are smart. Women must demonstrate their intelligence more frequently to be believed and taken seriously.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

This agency has grown from 3 programs when it was founded to 27 programs–all helping others to change their lives. Last year we served 13,548 folks. The actual job of seeing over these programs and services is considerably different than what I thought I would be doing when I took on the job with just those first 3 much smaller programs.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

You need to be the type of person will not “smart” or personalize when others oppose you. You need to have the trait of being mindful of others’ positions, and then building on their strengths.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

You need to recognize that if weren’t for the people that work for you, you would not be in your position. If you think it is only on you, then you should not be the leader. I’d also advise them to put themselves in the shoes of their team members — and to know that everyone wakes up in the morning with the thought of doing a good job.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m grateful for Doctor Tom Rusk for seeing in me at the time, something that I couldn’t see in myself, and mentoring me and training me. Dr. Rusk was a very brilliant man and a brilliant psychiatrist. He was also very Avant Gard. This is the kind of guy Tom Rusk was: He had a patient would not look at him; he would keep his eyes down on the ground and would not look up at Tom. So, Tom got up from his chair, went over and laid down on the ground in front of the patient and said, “Now you’ll look at me.” And the patient looked at Tom! I always loved that story, because that was Tom. He was unconventional. He could go to church and talk to a church group and curse as he spoke, and no one would think anything of it. You and I, we couldn’t do it, but Tom could. He was just a fun person, and I loved him.

Tom believed in brief therapy. He wrote a book on the topic, and he practiced it. He would say, “I’m going to give you somethings to do and you’re going to do them, and they’re going to help you. If you don’t do them, don’t come back.” He said, “If you don’t get well or have some change in your life in the six to eight weeks that I see you, I don’t want to see you anymore, because you’re not serious. You can go to somebody for three years and pay them $200,000, let them listen to you with nothing ever-changing in your life — but don’t come to me, because you need to change your life in the six to eight weeks that I see you.” He would never survive in today’s clinical world, but he believed in me and my ability to be successful in the field when I needed it most. I’ll always be grateful for that.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I have continually worked to keep our mission to provide professional services that heal lives through the miracle of recovery central and foremost in all we do as an agency, as well as to assure each success we achieve is founded on empathy and hope. Keeping these foremost has led to our operation of programs that represent a complete continuum of care for the prevention and treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction. Today, that care spans prevention, outreach, intervention, deferred entry programs, outpatient treatment, short-term residential, long-term residential, and sober living. The programs are tailored to meet individual needs with programs for pregnant women, ex-offenders, homeless men, Spanish speaking, teens, and co-occurring individuals. McAlister Institute helps build the foundation for recovery through intervention, counseling, co-occurring mental health treatment, medical assistance, and community referrals.

As I mentioned, last year we served 13,548 folks. This includes service to adults, adolescents, and families annually, most of whom are low-income, under-served, impoverished, and precariously housed or homeless. This number is due, in part, to my long-standing policy that no individuals be turned away based on the complexity of their needs or an inability to pay. Many of those we serve previously lacked access to care and needed supports and had “fallen through the cracks” for years. I believe in this way my success has made the world a better place.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. When I first started, I wish someone had told me that I would have restrictions. I didn’t know that in the beginning. I thought we got our non-profit status and we could just do what we wanted to do. I learned quickly that was not so; there were State, County, City restrictions; there were contract restrictions, clinical restrictions. Knowing how stringent and countless these were when I first started operating programs would have been helpful.
  2. I also wish that I had known that a good leader is not in front of the pack, but in the back of the pack, because I went through some tough learning experiences coming to that knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, I read the analogy of how the leader of the wolf-pack leads from behind the pack and thought how true it was: At the front of the wolf pack are the old and sick members, who walk in front to set the pace, so they do not get left behind. The next group includes a few of the strongest members of the pack, who protect those in front if there is an attack. Next, there is the largest group in the middle, who are always protected from any attack, both from the front and the back. Behind them is the last group, who are also among the strongest and best; their job is to protect the back of the pack if there is an attack. Then last of all is one lone wolf, the leader. The leader makes sure no one is left behind and keeps the pack together on the right path. The leader is always ready to go in the direction needed to protect the entire pack. Leadership is not about doing everything, or even being the most visible. Leadership is about leading from behind — making sure the team is taken care of and on the right path. At one time, I did everything myself. I thought I was supposed to, or that I was the best person for every task that came up. Since then, I’ve learned to let go; other people might not do it the way I would have done it, they will do it their own way, but it will get done. We have grown so much more as an agency and a team since I have been in the back of the pack than we grew when I was leading from the front.
  3. I wish that someone had told me that a non-profit doesn’t have to be poor — your programs don’t have to be impoverished. In the early days, I thought scrimping was expected. For some reason, since our mission is to help our clients live better lives, there’s a belief that we are supposed to use aging equipment and sit at decrepit desks to portray the role of a long-suffering charity. I wish I had been clear on the fact that “nonprofit” is a tax standing, not a profitability standing. Of course, there is always a need for more services and more funding to provide them, but that does not mean currently funded services are required to appear needy.
  4. I wish I had learned early on that failure is not failure, it is just a way of being told that I needed to go in a different direction. Failure showed me where I should not be; there was something to be learned or another path to be taken. If someone had told me that sometimes things do not go as planned and that is fine, I like to think I would have taken the failures with much more grace. There can be more learned in a single failure than what can be learned in a series of successes. I have learned that what I planned will not happen exactly how I thought it would, but that is okay. Today, I get the idea going and trust the process and allow any failure along the way to be like a compass, pointing me in another direction.
  5. The fifth thing that I wish that I had known is that I would become addicted to the work. I really didn’t realize that I would become so passionate about it. I don’t know that it would it have changed anything, but I wish I would have known. One facet of being passionate about this work is that I have softened. In the beginning, I was so much more rigid. As you work in this field, you become flexible and embrace change more readily. For example, I had a program manager who was not doing so well in his role and needed to be reassigned, no matter how badly I had wanted it to work out. Yesterday, I hired a new person for the position, and as we were talking, and he was asking me questions about how I wanted him to proceed, I wanted to cry because I was so happy to have the positive change. Now, that is soft!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would want to inspire a movement that caused all folks to focus on the positive in others, as well as to believe that leopards can change their spots, and so can people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do your best everyday — know that you are not alone, get to know other people from other agencies that are in your position, recognize that you are that leader in the back of the pack.”

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would want to talk to someone who could hear and actually do something to help the struggle that nonprofits have under all the paperwork that we are required to complete. Millions of hours each year are wasted by nonprofits trying to comply with the unrealistic requirements of some funders. I am not sure who the person to talk to would be — it would need to be someone who has the power to make a change. I used to want to talk to the Drug Czar under Obama, Michael Botticelli. He was gay, in recovery, and had been sober nearly thirty years. I saw him on 60 Minutes, where he said he almost found it easier to come out as being a gay man than it was to come out as being an alcoholic in recovery. He said people were more accepting of him being gay than they were of him having had an addiction. I feel like he would have been someone with an understanding of the need and the reality of the struggle, who had the power to help. Of course, he has moved out of the position now; but I still hope to find the right person to help do something about the changes that are needed in the field.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.


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