Leadership Hacks for Harm Reductionists

What is Leadership?

The dictionary and many leadership experts define leadership as the person or process exerting some kind of influence (social, financial, cultural etc.) to maximize the efforts of many people to achieve a common goal. Leadership is an individual matter that can also be built into the design and culture of an organization.

The most common traits associated with effective leaders, according to existing research:

  • Integrity
  • Ability to delegate
  • Communication
  • Self-awareness
  • Gratitude
  • Learning agility
  • Influence
  • Empathy
  • Courage
  • Respect

Traits of effective leadership according to harm reduction leaders:

  • Integrity – personal integrity and commitment to the principles of harm reduction. This includes honesty and trying to avoid hypocrisy.
  • Strong ego vs. big ego – being humble and having a strong enough self-image to be able to “lean into” critique as an opportunity for growth, rather than responding defensively or with hostility. Willingness to be accountable for wrong action or behavior. The opposite of arrogance.
  • Stewardship – taking care of the agency and its resources in accordance with its mission and keeping in mind “the big picture” of the harm reduction movement overall.
  • Organizational empowerment – empowering employees through effective delegation, a focus on employee and volunteer career development, and creating opportunities for those providing services to meaningfully impact the design and implementation of programs.
  • Community empowerment – ensuring a meaningful “place at the table” for marginalized folks. Power sharing, jobs, and opportunities that benefit people who use drugs, homeless folks, sex workers, the formerly incarcerated, mentally ill people, people of color, poor people, women, LGBTQ+ people, and others who have been harmed by structural violence and barriers.
  • Modeling – modeling the kinds of behavior and attitudes that are expected from all staff and participants, especially with regard to boundaries and self-care. This included being an example of what it means to be accountable.
  • Effective boundaries – this means having boundaries that are thoughtful, dovetail with one’s values, and that can be easily stated and enforced. This especially came up with more experienced leaders, who said it was critical to their work.
  • Flexibility – the ability to adapt to change including- policy and funding environments, community need, evolving science and theory, and input from community members and colleagues.

Risks and Benefits

Leadership always carries the inherent risk of concentrating organizational power in the hands of one or a small group. This can lead to a toxic organizational culture in which leadership is beyond scrutiny and corruption more common.

Organizations without formal leadership, on the other hand, can lack focus, flounder in indecision, and risk being less effective. Informal leadership structures tend to reinforce existing power dynamics and make it hard for organizations to become equitable or effective.

Organizations with effective leadership get more done, in less time, for more people. These organizations are functional, stable, and valued by the communities they serve.

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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