“Chasing Heroin” with Situational Leadership and Negotiation

Adaptive leadership and a new negotiating lens on a public health crisis

By on / Leadership Skills

Across the country, America’s leaders are waging a highly-publicized battle against a raging heroin epidemic. “Chasing Heroin,” an investigative report by Frontline, recently shed light on responses to the crisis, which currently contributes to over 27,000 opiate overdoses nationwide each year. What reporters found is that the best methods for combatting the problem have come from instances where situational leadership at the local level produced successful negotiated agreements between stakeholders. Nowhere is this truer than with a Seattle public defender who saw the right moment to take action.


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


Stepping into the Limelight

With limited resources, all levels of government have been negotiating agreements in order to combat the growing problem, from local police to the president. In Seattle, attorney Lisa Daugaard rose to prominence by negotiating the creation of a program that re-shaped the city law enforcement’s entire approach to drug addiction.

Daugaard’s story shows how situational leadership—where leaders adapt their leadership styles to a particular, pressing issue—can inform important negotiations that lead to nationwide responses to a serious problem. Understanding her approach provides an invaluable window into the role of situational leadership in any negotiation.

Is This a Moment for Situational Leadership?

Many effective negotiators have an instinctive sense of the right time for action, but it is always helpful to stop and ask if you are the best person to help address a situation at a given moment. A long-time public defender, Daugaard’s work gave her first-hand experience seeing how Seattle responded to drug addiction.

What she saw was a justice system that treated addicts like serious criminals, resulting in lengthy jail sentences that were not reducing addiction rates or the crimes associated with them. The moment called for someone with experience, an understanding of the issues at hand, and a willingness to act. In short, it was a moment that called for Lisa Daugaard’s particular style of situational leadership.

An Impasse Often Leads to Negotiations

While it is important to recognize where negotiation is needed, it is also important to acknowledge what cannot be negotiated. Often, what cannot be negotiated is continued acceptance of the status quo. Daugaard observed that Seattle’s response to drug addiction disproportionately affected young men of color, violating their civil rights. She demanded change.

Daugaard’s statements garnered significant attention, and the ire of many of the city’s law enforcement professionals. Despite the criticism, her claims catapulted her to the fore of a community discussion, setting the stage for a negotiation.

Turning a Conversation into a Negotiation

Daugaard’s persistence paid off when a county prosecutor asked her to join him in conversation with a Seattle police lieutenant. Instead of hurling insults at one another, the two set aside their opposition, and laid out their grievances in clear, simple terms. When they did, they realized that they actually agreed on the most important issue; the existing approach, which treated drug addicts as criminals, was not working. Their shared sense of the fundamental problem made it possible to turn a conversation into a negotiation.

Situational Leadership and Joint Gains

Good situational leadership relies on constant self-assessment, and a willingness to probe positions and interests in order to reach better agreements. By recognizing that they shared a perception of the existing problems, law enforcement officials and Daugaard’s Public Defender Association negotiated a new set of policies to respond more effectively to the crisis. Most importantly, what emerged from their negotiations was a sense that the crucial moment for dealing with drug addiction was at the time of arrest. At that moment, they realized, police needed more options than simply throwing someone in jail.

Reframing the Issue and Getting Better Results

In 2011, their negotiations paid off. Seattle and King County implemented a program called LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), which provides housing and support services for addicts instead of jail time. At the core of their agreement, Daugaard and law enforcement officials made the decision to re-frame drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal matter.

In their discussions, they had discovered that jailing addicts was not reducing crimes, nor was it affecting the growing rates of addiction. The new approach allowed them to better help addicts, use public health resources more effectively, and reduce the burden on the criminal justice system.

Claiming Greater Value

A University of Washington Study has shown that the LEAD program has resulted in a 58% reduction in re-arrest rates for addicts. The remarkable success of the program has garnered national attention. Daugaard and other civic leaders have shown adaptive situational leadership skills, bringing their program to other communities and all the way to the White House. LEAD has gone from an unprecedented proposal to becoming the most promising way forward for struggling towns and cities across the country.

Daugaard’s success is the result of negotiations that were effective because of her situational leadership skills. By making clear assessments of what was working and what was not she was able to target the key issues and separate them from the positions of the people involved. As a result, she turned a tide of opposition into a coalition of supporters whose impact has helped to change how a nation approach the terrible disease of addiction.


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


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