We interviewed and surveyed many different people who were involved in a leadership transition. Most of this resulting toolkit was developed to provide concrete tools to helpt perform administrative tasks. We also heard many lessons learned related to style, process and relationships. The lessons below reflect several major themes shared by people who have the benefit of hindsight and reflection.
Harm Reduction is about resistance, activism building power among affected people, and recognizing the dignity of people who use drugs, do sex work and are affected by the War on Drugs. Thus some people who do this work are bold and creative in their advocacy for their programs, staff and participants. This can instill deep love and affection for a leader or, likewise, frustration and scorn for their methods and/or personality archetype. The result can be elevating a previous leader to an unchallengeable status where organizational memory is they could do no wrong or in dismissing the previous leader’s successes and the creation of a narrative that they produced only disappointment and missed opportunities.
Harm Reduction leaders – like all complicated freedom fighters – are always a mixture of the two extremes. To adopt a wholly positive or negative historical narrative, sets up a new leader for failure. If the previous leader is viewed as only excellent, then it becomes impossible for a new leader to measure up, and the potential for a cult of personality to develop becomes worrisome. Similarly, if the previous leader is viewed as only terrible, a new leader may fear that there is no room for error or differing perspectives. If people seem to be falling into deifying or vilifying of leaders, then it’s important to create opportunities to develop a more balanced historical narrative.
Leadership transition entails change. Although change ultimately brings net positives to most organizations, change and the accompanying uncertainty are always challenging for groups; certain members may feel this especially acutely. In situations involving interim Leadership transition entails change. Although change ultimately brings net positives to most organizations, change and the accompanying uncertainty are always challenging for groups; certain members may feel this especially acutely. In situations involving interim leadership, people may begin to settle into that change, feel that things are “back to normal” and may not want to proactively choose a new leader.
While this is completely understandable, avoiding or procrastinating the selection of new leadership is not advisable. During a leadership transition, particularly one with interim leadership, labor may become unevenly divided. The interim ED and/or members of the Board of Directors probably agreed to take on additional tasks with the understanding that it would be temporary. When an organization grows accustomed to the interim structure and resists choosing a new long-term leader, it runs the risk of burn-out among those who stepped up to temporarily take on more responsibilities.
Life is a lot more pleasant when you learn from other people’s mistakes.