Organizational Culture for Effective Leadership

Organizational culture can positively or negatively impact any individual leader’s capacity to effectively lead, no matter their personal skill set. Harm reduction leaders have many tips to avoid some of the pitfalls of leadership while ensuring that the leaders they chose can be as effective as possible. These best practice organizational insights included:

  • Transparency – policies, procedures, power structures, information sharing, decision-making, and problem-solving mechanisms must all be clear, open, and honest.
  • Honesty – a trait fundamental to effective organizations and leadership.
  • Equity – look for and counteract issues of social inequality with regard to race, class, gender, sexual orientation and behavior, ethnicity, disability, drug use, houselessness, history of incarceration, mental illness, and structural violence and barriers. Do not tokenize marginalized people or treat them as incapable of adhering to agency expectations. Empower people who benefit from harm reduction services in material ways, including providing them with opportunities to earn money and paying them for their expertise. Leaders talked about the need for other harm reduction leaders to confront bias within themselves, their agency, and the work they do in order to inspire the same in those they lead. Leaders understood that this meant recognizing and accommodating differences in culture, education, and capacity.
  • Expect change – in leadership, in relationships, in funding streams; become more focused on long-term outcomes and more prepared (rather than reactive) when change, inevitably, happens.
  • Encourage leadership – encourage others to lead by encouraging them to take on new tasks and challenges, especially people who have experienced structural violence.
  • Create checks and balances – especially with regard to service provision, finances, and personnel issues. Examples include having more than one person overseeing petty cash and having checklists for service shifts.
  • Create redundancies – redundancies in who can do tasks and how they can be done are an excellent way to ensure transparency and empower people.
  • Have clear boundaries – including practical considerations such as what kinds of services are provided, policies about everything from personnel issues to bathroom usage, who the agency will accept money from, and how donations are accepted.
  • Have clear decision-making guidelines – clear policies about who makes which decisions and how.
  • Provide support – create ways for leaders to support the people they lead, and also for leaders to have the support they need to do their best. (Support for leaders is often outside the organization.)
  • Think in terms of teams – thinking of the organization as a collective unit or team in pursuit of a common goal, with a common identity and a need to support one another in order to achieve that goal, is crucial to effective work.

Roadblock Tips:

Many harm reduction programs start out as DIY operations, with one person (or a few people) doing everything from outreach to vehicle maintenance to training volunteers. This “can do” attitude is laudable but becomes problematic when organizations expand and there are others who can help, yet leaders are often reluctant, or simply don’t know how, to delegate tasks to others. Reasons for being reluctant to do so may include:

  • Thinking it would take longer to explain the task than just doing it themselves
  • Wanting to feel indispensable
  • Enjoying completing certain projects or tasks
  • Feeling guilty about adding more work onto someone else’s to-do list
  • Lacking trust in the people they need to transfer the project to
  • Secretly (or not so secretly) believing that they’re the only ones who can do the job right

Delegation is actually the key to organizational success. It creates transparency, empowers others, and reduces workloads.

Learning to delegate can be difficult. Some suggestions from existing leaders include:

  • Know what to delegate
  • Learn to let go
  • Set expectations/define desired outcome
  • Play to people’s strengths and goals
  • Provide resources and guidance, not control
  • Have faith in your team
  • Have clear lines of communication
  • Allow for failure/ be patient
  • Deliver (and ask for) feedback on the process
  • Give credit where credit is due

Look for opportunities to learn and practice delegation. This may mean leadership or management training. It may also mean simply talking to other leaders about how they delegate work to others and the challenges they have faced in order to avoid those pitfalls.

Roadblock Tips:
Time Management

Time management is another area harm reduction leaders, and indeed many people, report struggling with. There are many systems for dealing with time management that deal with one of two issues:

  1. How to prioritize tasks
  2. How to focus on tasks

Prioritizing Tasks

One of the most famous models for prioritizing tasks was developed by Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey describes the time management matrix to help prioritize tasks. The matrix divides tasks into four quadrants and encourages people to list their to-dos within the matrix to determine what order to go about them:

Urgent Not Urgent

Many harm reduction leaders would also add an extra row for delegation. Like this:

Urgent Not Urgent

Here is a sample Monday to-do list from a fictional harm reduction leader we’ll call Jay:

  • Put away supplies
  • Stock van
  • Write grant report (due Friday)
  • Respond to email
  • Sign up for warranty on new computer
  • Prep for Community meeting (Wednesday)
  • Run payroll (due tomorrow)

Here is that list prioritized using the Covey method:

Urgent Not Urgent
Important Run payroll (due tomorrow) Write grant report (due Friday)
Prep for Community meeting (Wednesday)
Unimportant Respond to email Sign up for warranty on new computer
Delegate Put away supplies
Stock van

Focusing on Tasks

To focus on specific tasks there are many tips and tricks but one of the most famous, evidence-based ones, is the Pomodoro Technique. This method was developed by Francesco Cirillo, a university student frustrated with his own inability to focus for long periods. Instead, he found that he could focus on longer-focus tasks for 25 minutes followed by a short break of 5 minutes then returning to the original task or moving on to a new longer-focus task. This method has been studied and has proven useful to many. There are multiple free apps and websites to help learn and utilize this method of task management.

Other recommendations for focusing on tasks include:

  • Eliminate distractions – this should be self-evident, but it is very hard to work in loud or noisy places, or places where someone needs your attention every 10 minutes.
  • Get adequate rest – sleep is essential for focus.
  • Eat well and regularly – for full concentration it’s important to both eat nourishing food and to eat regularly to keep blood sugar and nutrient levels where your brain needs them to concentrate.
  • Regulate your chemistry – make sure that you have adequate access to whatever drugs you need to regulate your mood and biochemistry – from caffeine to nicotine to heroin – many of us need certain levels of chemicals to keep us focused.
  • HydrateResearch shows that when people are mildly dehydrated they don’t do as well on tasks that require complex processing or attention, so drink up – preferably water!
  • Find your productive time of day – contrary to popular belief there is no one “right” time of day for all of us – some of us are at our peak at 8 a.m. and others at 1 a.m. – find the times of day that work for your brain and, as much is possible, work then.
  • Allow yourself to take breaks – take breaks at an interval that works for you and your life.
  • Practice focus – if focusing is hard for you, try practicing it in small increments of a few minutes – like any skill, the more you do it the easier it is to do.
  • Use sound or music – use music or soundscapes to help you focus.
  • Avoid or limit social media – social media is literally designed to overstimulate you in order to keep you engaged, which, in turn, can disrupt focus – many people report that limiting social media exposure helps with focus and concentration.

Roadblock Tips:
Better Boundaries

Many harm reduction leaders talked about the need to have healthy boundaries around their work life and the things they will and will not take on. Many spoke to the fact that boundaries did not come naturally to them but that learning them had been critical to doing their best work. Some tips for developing better boundaries include:

  • Learn to recognize your own needs and listen to your intuition.
  • Know your values and what integrity looks like to you.
  • Recognize that knowing and communicating your boundaries shows respect for self and others.
  • Let your values and intuition help you define your boundaries.
  • Set consequences for folks who transgress your boundaries.
  • Communicate your boundaries.
  • Stay the course and be consistent.
  • Recognize that other folks’ crises and issues are not yours and let them go.
  • When possible, find a professional (coach or therapist) to work with to help you develop better boundaries.

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.

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.

Continue reading


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

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google
Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.