Leadership Hacks for Harm Reductionists

How to Be a Better Leader

Individual Skills

  • Find mentors – this was the most common recommendation from leaders in harm reduction. Their mentors include local and national colleagues, their board of directors, and people from colleges and universities. Finding a mentor can be as simple as asking someone you respect if you can talk to them about the issues you face. A great place to meet mentors is at conferences or other gatherings. Try not to be intimidated – many newer leaders feel that more experienced leaders are hard to approach, but experienced leaders often expressed readiness to help newer colleagues.
  • Find peers – participate in groups of peers such as monthly SSP meetings, executive director peer groups, or affinity groups for Black or other harm reductionists.
  • Make and use mistakes – this was the second most common recommendation from leaders in harm reduction. Use mistakes, even catastrophic ones, to learn what you can do differently in the future.
  • Learn all you can – leaders said again and again that learning about every aspect of their work, from the practical to the philosophical, helped them improve as harm reductionists and as leaders.
  • Seek self-insight – be curious about your own motivations, reactions, behavior, boundaries, and emotions. Methods mentioned by harm reduction leaders included therapy, professional coaching, drug use, and meditation.
  • Challenge yourself – have courage in the face of difficult or frightening situations, tasks, or conversations. This includes confronting personal bias and listening to feedback from community members.
  • Determine your boundaries – boundaries are your personal limits about what you are willing to do and how you expect to be treated. Experienced harm reduction leaders said they need clear boundaries in order to run their organizations, and their lives, effectively.
  • Walk your talk – work to practice your values in work and personal life.
    Look for personal balance – create a work/life balance to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue and to model self-care.
  • Value the service you provide – it can help to understand leadership as a service to all stakeholders including staff, who leaders are helping to do the best jobs that they can; participants, who are the most important stakeholders; board members; and community partners. Rather than being the most important person or people in the organization, leaders facilitate the excellence of others in order to best serve participants.
  • Learn to delegate – a critical skill that can be very difficult. Start by clearly defining tasks, then identify others who could do or learn those tasks.
  • Learn to communicate with different people/ “code switch” – learn to speak to different stakeholders in the manner they are most comfortable – from participants to funders.
  • Assume positive intent – assuming other people mean well lightens your mood, lowers your stress levels, and quite often throws other people off guard in positive ways.
  • Ask for feedback – create mechanisms to directly ask for feedback from participants, staff, and other stakeholders.
  • Listen – listen to stakeholders and you will grow as a leader.

More Resources

Don’t reinvent the wheel
During our development Harm Reduction Hacks have collected together a large number of resources from around the web you can find these in our resource folder in Google Docs. We are also always looking for more so help us by suggesting any resources we may have missed.
Suggest a Resource

External Resources

Collected from around the web
There are a number of external resources that contributed to the development of Harm Reduction Hacks. Here are a selection relating to this section:


The hacks on this site are shared with you under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence. This allows you (with attribution) to adapt content for your own use, although we do ask you to then also allow others to have equal access to anything you develop. More details of this licence can be found on the Creative Commons website.


We do not claim that this is an exhaustive set of strategies, shortcuts, or tips for running an SSP. What we do suggest is that Harm Reduction Hacks offers down-to-earth, practical information for being a better leader, starting and running an SSP, and providing syringe access services. We feel we can say this with confidence because the Hacks are based on interviews with, and the experiences of, literally generations of people who have been doing harm reduction work.

Please note that nothing in this guide should be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney local to your area to ensure your program is in compliance with all local, state and federal regulations that apply to your situation. 

Harm Reduction Hacks site design and implimentation by Nigel Brunsdon

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