It was 1970, and Norine G. Johnson, PhD, had just finished her postdoc in pediatric psychology at University Hospital in Cleveland. Though she loved her work, her husband's job was transferred to Boston and Johnson dutifully followed without having a job herself.
"After a year of playing housewife, I decided I couldn't stand it anymore and I had to get a job again," she recalls.
Her work on a medical staff-a rarity at the time for psychologists-helped land her a position as director of psychology at Kennedy Memorial Hospital (now Franciscan Hospital for Children) in Boston. But, the post sounded more impressive than it was. The department consisted of two people, and the rest of the staff viewed psychotherapy with suspicion.
Johnson jumped right in, using what has become her distinctive leadership style: communicating with others using psychology-based techniques and building consensus, starting with brown-bag lunches where she talked to nurses and other members of the medical staff about the value of psychotherapy. Her strategy worked. When Johnson left in 1988, the psychology department had grown to 28 staffers.
Since then, Johnson has applied to her professional life and leadership roles what she calls a "power-sharing" approach-one that values process, then action. She adds another ingredient she deems essential: truth-telling. "I learned from my parents that good things would happen if you told the truth, even if you'd done something embarrassing or wrong or stupid," she says.
She tested that philosophy during her first days on APA's Council of Representatives in the mid-1980s when she spoke out about the fact that Psychology Today, then owned by APA, was losing millions of dollars. Despite opposition from numerous APA leaders, she convinced APA's Board to sell the magazine-a move that helped put the association on sound financial footing.
Johnson continued to use the strategies of strong communication, consensus-building and truth-telling to address three major events of her 2001 APA presidency. With input from members of APA's Board, for example, she launched her presidential initiative, "Psychology Builds a Healthy World," which many say brought psychology more fully into mainstream health care.
Likewise, Johnson helped resolve a heated controversy over an article rejected by the American Psychologist by bringing in factions for and against the journal's stance and requiring them to create a clearer rejection policy.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks presented the most daunting challenge of her presidency. Johnson believes that being a woman and clinician helped her deal effectively with the crisis, both in urging psychologists to help their communities cope with the tragedy, and in being an articulate spokesperson for APA about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Today, Johnson is an APA Council Representative for Div. 29 (Psychotherapy), where she hopes to ply yet another leadership agenda: bringing psychotherapy back as a central focus of APA, much as she helped bring psychology into mainstream health care.
"I'd like psychotherapy to be seen as a place where health occurs," she says.