Understanding the bigger picture; taking decisions and risks on the basis of incomplete or contradictory information; possessing self-awareness, humility and enthusiasm - these are just some of the qualities humanitarian workers see as being most important in a humanitarian leader, according to a 9 June report by ALNAP entitled Leadership in Action: Leading effectively in humanitarian operations.
While experience and competencies count, it is often “personal qualities” that differentiate decent and brilliant leaders, says the report: passion, dedication, putting communities’ needs at the centre of all decision-making; being aware of one’s own limitations; being quick to learn from mistakes; and, says Ross Mountain, former head of the UN in the Democratic Republic of Congo, possessing enough self-assurance to risk being disliked.
But growing risk-aversion in the humanitarian sector quashes individuals’ ability to exercise these characteristics, stifling effective leadership, report author Margie Buchanan-Smith, told IRIN.
The current drive to improve accountability - while an important aim - has in some cases “squeezed out creative space” in humanitarian organizations, said Buchanan-Smith.
“Stifling culture of compliance”
“There is alarming evidence of a growing tendency towards risk-aversion in the sector, associated in part with the drive for accountability, which is resulting in a stifling culture of compliance, and in part with the constraints of bureaucracy,” said the report.
ALNAP’s head of research Paul Knox-Clarke told IRIN: “There are more checks and balances, more boxes to tick… This can prevent bad or unusual things from happening, but in a situation when sometimes the unorthodox is necessary.”
The problem is particularly acute in UN institutions, which are more hierarchical and bureaucratic than NGOs, and where, “risk-taking by individuals is more likely when they disregard their own career paths and prioritize humanitarian objectives.”
As a result, good leadership often transpires “in spite of” not “because of” organizational culture, says the report, giving the example of Andrew Macleod, UN cluster coordinator in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, who regardless of his status in the hierarchy, effectively led coordination between the humanitarian community, national government and military communities.
Risk for risk’s sake is not the goal, rather “honourable risk” is worth striving for - that is, bold decisions are taken that recognize the heavy cost of failure, for instance, when lives are at stake, said Buchanan-Smith.
Abbas Gullet, head of the Kenya Red Cross, is seen by fellow staff as embodying this approach. “The sky is the limit,” they said when describing his approach to bold, creative ideas.
Women, national staff under-represented
Leadership qualities identified in the report are not unique to the humanitarian sector, but the situations in which they must be exercised are often particularly complicated and challenging: working with people in distress; taking decisions that will affect people’s lives on the basis of ambiguous information; and working in dangerous environments, for instance.
While leadership can be learned, often it is childhood experiences or mentors that inspire effective leadership, said El Khidir Daloum, country director of Somalia for Save the Children UK, who cites his father as his first leadership mentor.
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A national staff member who rose to become an international country programme director, Khidir’s path is unusual in the humanitarian sector, where the leadership potential of national staff is “usually ignored”, said Smith.
Many strong humanitarian leaders have complex identities, drawing on all aspects of them depending on what they need to be achieved. Many cited Jemilah Mahmood, Malaysian president of NGO Mercy in Indonesia, as an effective leader: she told ALNAP she identifies with the Malaysian, Malay, Chinese, medical doctor, Muslim, female, mother, humanitarian aid, and global business cultures.
Mahmood stood out as one of the rare women among a sea of men identified as effective leaders - an issue that must urgently be addressed and better-understood, said all interviewees.
Visions of leadership still sit in a largely “male” and Western mould, said Knox-Clarke, and one in which the researchers themselves, to a degree, held. Thus many interviewees believed effective leadership must necessarily entail being a workaholic, describing effective leaders as being “married to their jobs”
“Many men have been living out what they think of as leadership in an increasingly complex world where that model might not work very well,” he added.
Rather than one leader embodying a “heroic mix” of attributes which will inevitably lead to burnout, organizations should consider a leader-as-host approach, that is, looking at a team’s collective leadership ability, rather than focusing on one person, said Knox-Clarke. “That would take the weight off the humanitarian coordinator and place it on the humanitarian country team,” he said.
When it comes to risk, the humanitarian community should look to good examples of public sector organizations that have enhanced accountability while not constraining leadership, said Buchanan-Smith; while chief executives should think about new ways of incentivizing leadership, not just checking it against compliance with the agency’s procedures and financial targets, said Knox-Clarke.
Finally, the glaring question of why so few women and national staff are cited as effective leaders in senior field-based roles, needs to be urgently addressed, said Buchanan-Smith.