Organizational Power

Look at organizational power objectively and be transparent about decision making.

Too often leaders and organizations are reluctant to objectively examine the various kinds of power in their organizations for fear of “upsetting the apple cart”, losing power or simply because they lack the time, an adequate framework or mentorship to do so. But understanding the dynamics of power, objectively evaluating how it operates within your organization and making transparent decisions about who gets to have what power and, by extension, make decisions, creates a more functional organizational culture for accommodating change and running the organization on a day-to-day basis.

Power is held and exercised in different ways, and a variety of models have arisen to describe it. One of the most famous models was developed by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven in 1959, who described the following forms of power in organizations:

  • Legitimate – This authority is rooted in a shared belief that a person has the formal right to make demands because power has been conferred to them legitimately – through hiring or election for example.

  • Expert – This is authority based on a person’s skill or knowledge.

  • Referent – The basis of this authority is the result of a person’s perceived attractiveness, worthiness and right to others’ respect.

  • Reward – This type of power is derived from a person’s ability to compensate others for compliance.

  • Coercive – This authority comes from the belief that a person can punish others for noncompliance.

  • Informational – This power is the result of a person’s ability to control the information that others need to accomplish something.

Every organization uses a variety of these kinds of power. Objectively evaluating how power functions within your organization and actively deciding how you want it to operate can make a huge difference in creating an organizational culture that is functional and Ready4Change.

Delegation is giving others the opportunity to participate in the story. If you have a good story, people will line up to get involved to play a part.
Eric Phillips

Learn harm reduction leadership “best practices”

Harm reduction leaders have a lot in common in terms of how they lead. Those represented here repeatedly cited the following as important skills that harm reduction leaders should aim to develop and/or perfect:

  • Integrity- honesty and follow-through on ideals
  • Strong ego vs. big ego- confidence without arrogance
  • Willingness to be accountable- taking responsibility, including when hearing feedback is hard
  • Mindful stewardship- tending to the agency and its resources
  • Organizational empowerment- ensuring employee engagement and empowerment
  • Community empowerment- ensuring a meaningful, empowered, “place at the table” for participants and those being served
  • Exemplification or modeling- “walking the walk” – being the example of how to behave
  • Effective boundaries- knowing your limits and needs
  • Flexibility/adaptability- the ability to roll with change

Find ways to help yourself and others in your organizations develop these skills and best practices.


Many harm reduction programs start as essentially one-person operations in which the de-facto leader does everything – from packing hygiene kits to paying the insurance. Thus, even when organizations expand and others are available to help, these leaders are often reluctant to or simply don’t know how to delegate or share tasks.

Some reasons for this 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 those they could transfer the project to
  • Secretly (or not so secretly) believing that they’re the only ones who can do the job right
But delegation – which requires cross training – is actually the key to organizational success. Not only does it empower others and reduce workloads, it also creates a better environment for succession by expanding the number and variety of people who understand the organization and are prepared to keep it afloat when major changes inevitably occur.

Identify and Mentor Emerging Leaders

Because it is often easier within the tight-knit confines of harm reduction organizations or programs to promote new leaders from within, several leaders mentioned the importance of identifying potential leaders and nurturing them as much as possible to ensure a smooth transition when the time comes.

Cross Train and “Proceduralize”

The not-so-distant cousins of delegation are cross-training and “proceduralization”.

Cross-training is just what it says – ensuring that a variety of people are trained and can do a variety of tasks necessary for the organization’s work. In harm reduction organizations this frequently means making sure everyone is trained to provide essential services such as syringe provision or naloxone distribution. It can also mean cross training a variety of people to do tasks such as opening sites, submitting necessary forms, doing data entry, creating reports, or doing financial tasks including ordering supplies or submitting reimbursement requests. In fact, cross training should be provided for most day-to-day tasks to best prepare both for major leadership changes and for normal temporary work disruptions such as vacations, illness or childbirth.

“Proceduralization” is a term coined by harm reduction leader Haley Coles to describe the ways that her organization has created checklists and templates for normal program and administrative tasks to make them completely transparent and to allow staff to take the initiative and attend to them.>Although this requires extra work at the “front end” of this process, the result is a blueprint for passive cross training and its resulting benefits.

We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.
Brené Brown

Learn to delegate

Learning to delegate can be difficult, but some suggestions include:

  • Know what to delegate.
  • Learn to let go.
  • Set expectations/define desired outcomes.
  • Play to people’s strengths and goals.
  • Provide resources and guidance, not control.
  • Have faith in your team.
  • Have a clear line of communication.
  • Allow for failure and 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 seeking out leadership or management training. It may also mean simply talking to other leaders about how they delegate work to others and what challenges they have faced in order to avoid those pitfalls themselves.

Normalize Change and the Expectation of Change

Many harm reduction leaders identified normalizing change and the expectation of change as essential to succession planning. This simply means talking about, and acknowledging, that changes are inevitable, regardless of the organization. Further, highlighting the opportunities that change can bring may help alleviate the discomfort surrounding it. No leader lasts forever, nor should they. It behooves every organization to prepare for transition to ensure that the efforts that created that organization are not lost but instead become the foundation for ever greater community impact. Leadership, and change in general, should be a regular part of discussions, especially strategic and other planning.

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. 

James Baldwin
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