A brief history of psychedelic medicine

2020 was a watershed year for Psychedelic Medicine. After half a century of being relegated to the edges of the mental health industry and social acceptance, the benefits and business of psychedelic therapy are again being given the attention and resources they deserve. But who will lead us through these nascent years?

Starting in late 2018, when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) accorded “breakthrough therapy” status to a psilocybin treatment for clinical depression, medical psychedelics have found worldwide momentum. Several US cities have since decriminalized psychedelics for medicinal purposes, while companies like Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Merck & Co., and Pfizer are exploring how LSD, MDMA and ketamine can be used in treatments for a range of issues from cancer to PTSD and depression to addiction. Newer entrants, like Mind Cure Health, are even taking a disruptive approach to long-established areas like headache relief.

As further testament to the resurgent significance of the industry, John Hopkins University recently launched the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. The new center will build on previous work and “expand research on psychedelics to develop new treatments for a wider variety of psychiatric and behavioral disorders,” says Roland Griffiths, founding director of the centre and a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience. It will also expand research on the benefits for healthy volunteers, “with the ultimate aspiration of opening new ways to support human thriving.”

A recent study by Data Bridge Market Research indicates that the psychedelic medicine industry is experiencing a compound annual growth rate of approximately 16%. This is driven in part by the efficacy and impact expected from chemicals such as LSD and ketamine in the antidepressant drug market alone, which is anticipated to exceed US$15.98 billion by 2023. As a result, many analysts have forecast the potential of the psychedelics market to outpace cannabis as an investment class.


Negative propaganda and changing social attitudes

In the cresting Psychedelic Medicine industry, it will fall to a particular quality of leader to keep things trending upwards and marching forward, while avoiding potential and predictable hazards. 

The psychedelic space is less likely to fall prey to the kind of "canna-bias" reticence that plagued the cannabis industry's early years. For one, the precedent of a viable therapeutic pathway for psychedelics has been set and many of the social and legal roadblocks have been (or are being) burnished away. Psychedelics also suffer from fewer consumer/recreational concerns. Simply put, the industry should have an easier ascent than cannabis did. But that doesn't mean there isn't still a long way to go before the psychedelic medicine business is as lauded and ubiquitous as something like EVs or meat substitutes. The benefits and opportunities may be well established but the way forward is not uncomplicated.

Negative propaganda and social attitudes about psychedelic compounds may not be as prevalent as they once were, but the "turn on, tune in, drop out" evocations do linger. Universal acceptance of psychedelic medicine is still a work in progress. And emerging discussions surrounding the colonization of psychedelic therapies (if left unaddressed) threaten to own an unfortunate piece of the conversation. Whatever the hurdles to come — predictable and unforeseen — the psychedelic space is going to need nimble and inspired leadership.

So what are some of the qualities that will distinguish the leaders we need? What type of person can help turn the growing interest in Psychedelic Medicine into an era-defining industry?



Here is a list of the five top core competencies required in psychedelic medicine industry leaders:


Psychedelics Leadership Core Competency #1: Storytelling

The ability to tell a good story is probably one of the most universally appreciated qualities a person can have. But it's not just a matter of knowing how to entertain. Stories are memorable, relatable and repeatable. When communicating organizational vision — especially in an area as nuanced as the psychedelic space — these are going to be hugely influential factors.

A plan is a story that takes into account the culture and history of an organization and then weaves a path forward that is inspiring and engaging. The ability to translate an intricate plan into a story that all the stakeholders (employees, investors, customers) can align behind is a super power. And that ability speaks to an array of supportive qualities that a good storyteller — a great leader — needs: confidence, passion, positivity, and the ability to motivate, while having the humility to allow stakeholders to see themselves as the protagonists in their own story.

In a recent interview with The Bedford Group Transearch, Cybin Corp. CEO Doug Drysdale tells his story of what drew him to psychedelic medicine space, why the industry is so transformative, and the talent acquisition challenges he's faced. 



Psychedelics Leadership Core Competency #2: Inclusivity

The world has never been more diverse, more atomized or polarized. True leadership will need to embrace that plurality, all the while working to align those disparate interests around shared aspirations and ambitions.

In welcoming diverse insights, there will necessarily be a generational component. Many companies equate forward momentum with assembling young, dynamic teams. This leaves an enormous resource untapped. The savvy leader will look to include more seasoned people on teams, and embrace their knowledge and experience. Recent studies, including one from the British government, suggest that this segment of the workforce, especially in advisory and collaborative roles, has more to offer than those who are fresh into the workplace. Experienced workers have much to offer and can act as mentors to younger team members, even as those newer employees help to reinvigorate the methods and standards of the more seasoned ones. 

It's in balancing and capitalizing on the variety of knowledge, experience and insight, across the diversity of our teams, that the real benefits of an inclusive, collaborative approach can have the most impact. Nowhere is this more true than in Psychedelic Medicine. The right leaders in that space will understand this intuitively, and look for opportunities to augment and promote such behavior.


Psychedelics Leadership Core Competency #3: Adaptability

We often equate adaptability with having the agility to pivot in reaction to shifting market realities. No doubt, that’s the case. But this expression of adaptability is largely an organizational one. 

When it comes to placing new leaders, the accepted view is that organizations will be required to adapt to them. But this is a reductionist view of leadership. Healthy organizations rarely thrive under autocratic rule. Rather, they are run by leaders who are the most able to express their unique form of stewardship in harmony with the existing culture.

Which is not to say that organizations can't change or be refocused, only that inspired leaders know they need to understand and work with the existing culture for positive change to take effect. You can nurture culture, and guide it, but you can't ignore it.

A lot is made of finding leaders who are a good culture fit with the organizations they are being placed in. Of course, that sort of alignment is the ideal. Sometimes, and with insightful executive search, a perfect marriage is possible. But, more often than not, new leaders are brought in to address something that is askew. In those cases, culture fit is less desirable than the ability to steer it in a better direction — and that requires adaptability.

In an industry as untried as Psychedelic Medicine, the ability to pivot or reframe is likely to be much sought after. The facility to execute those kinds of course changes will stem from leaders who have successfully wedded their operational ingenuity to the idiosyncrasies and inborn powers of the organization they're steering.


Psychedelics Leadership Core Competency #4: Integrity

This will come as no surprise to anyone — integrity matters. What isn't always so clear is what integrity means in the context of organizational leadership. Moral uprightness has its value but accountability, reliability, and transparency are often the better virtues when it comes to leading people. 

Not everyone is going to agree with every decision a leader makes and that's okay. Leaders are expected to make hard decisions and not all of those are going to be well received. What is generally received well by all stakeholders (and the public at large) is candor about those decisions, and being let into the process behind them.

It's also a measure of great leaders that they take responsibility for the initiatives they launch and for those they sign off on. And when those initiatives affect their teams, forcing change or demanding more of them, integrity means making sure that the appropriate resources are there to support their people — not let them fend for themselves.


Psychedelics Leadership Core Competency #5: Mindfulness 

Given the complete upsetting of norms that characterized the early 2020s — and the accompanying stresses — mindfulness may have found a permanent home inside organizational DNAs. Certainly, the calming and reflective practices associated with the term can have amazing benefits on health and productivity.

And it's incumbent on leaders to be exemplars of the work/life balance that their people (and thereby, organizations) need to stay healthy and thrive. Companies take their cues from the top and such will be the case in Psychedelic Medicine as well.

But let's take a broader view of what mindfulness can mean in a leadership context. Above all, mindfulness speaks to a kind of reflective intelligence, one whose driving force is to understand and optimize, causing as little internal or collateral distress as possible. This speaks to the type of leader who sees the big picture and is able to mobilize around objectives, without steamrolling the details. This is not a "move fast and break things" leader.

One could argue that vaccine successes of the early 2020s resulted from a non-reflective, hyper-sped approach. But that would be wrong. The record-shattering timeline for COVID vaccines was not the result of brash "because we can" methods. It was the result of having an already established methodical foundation that was well positioned to react at speed.

Progress doesn't come from a bull-in-the-china-shop approach, especially in healthcare and the life sciences, and more particularly in the medical psychedelic space. Leadership in these fields requires imagination, intellectual rigor, and optimism but not of the heedless variety.  A leader with these key attributes has a very clear sense of what the outcomes will be when the opportunity (or necessity) to move fast presents itself.

When these leaders move fast, they fix things.



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