Searching for the secrets of great leadership in humanitarian operations
A survey of aid workers in ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System report confirmed that most aid workers believe that a lack of effective leadership represents the main challenge to effective humanitarian action today, and many of us will have joined in with anecdotal discussions about the leadership void that is said to exist in so many humanitarian operations.
Despite considerable research into leadership carried out by the private sector, there has been little systematic study of what operational leadership really looks like in humanitarian emergencies. ALNAP’s latest Study, ‘Leadership in Action: Leading effectively in humanitarian operations’, to be published tomorrow (9th June 2011), sets out to fill this gap by developing a better understanding of what effective leadership looks like, to identify the determinants of good leadership and suggest ways in which it can be fostered.
The Study, authored by Margie Buchan-Smith, draws on 11 case studies of effective and inspirational leadership displayed across a range of different humanitarian crises, different countries and at different levels.
Presented below are some of the most striking findings which may either correspond with or contradict your own experiences. Please take a look and let us know.
1) The qualities and experience of the individual leader matter as much or more than their job title
- A consistent finding across all the case studies was the significance of personal authority as the determining factor of effective leadership, as opposed to the authority vested in position or status.
2) ‘Relational leadership’ based on networking, communication and team-building is crucial to effective humanitarian leadership
- The qualities and skills identified as common across our case studies point towards the relational nature of operational humanitarian leadership. This is underscored by the finding that the ability to build consensus across agencies is critical to effective leadership.
- However, it is equally important for those in leadership positions to know when to bring consultation to an end in order to make a clear decision.
3) Experience of humanitarian operations is crucial for establishing credibility and exercising judgement
- Leadership is an art, based as much on judgement and intuition as on pre-defined skills. The study found that experience of humanitarian operations is key to developing and applying this judgement as well as establishing the knowledge and credibility to be allowed to do so.
4) Individuals are vital but it is the organisation and the system as a whole that create a context within which their skills can most effectively be put to use
- The case studies show that in order to foster leadership, humanitarian organisations should consciously give operational leaders and teams space to work, and should reward risk-taking.
- In reality, many of the examples of effective leadership emerged in spite of a deeply constraining context, and the case-study leaders were prepared to take risks knowing that they would not necessarily receive the support of their organisations.
5) The international humanitarian system is neglecting the opportunity to capitalise on the wide range of potential leaders
- Drawing on diverse cultural identities can be a real asset to leadership, yet structures for identifying and appointing leaders still overwhelmingly favour international staff.
- It was striking how hard it was to find examples of women showing effective operational humanitarian leadership when drawing up the list of potential case studies. This begs a question about the gender balance among field-based managers and the importance of exploring possible barriers to women assuming leadership roles
6) Successful humanitarian leaders generally exhibit an unusually broad range of leadership qualities, and compared to leaders in other sectors they show a strong values base
- What is unique amongst humanitarian leaders is the context: working with people in distress, taking decisions that will affect lives and livelihoods on the basis of incomplete and ambiguous information, while under pressure to act rapidly
The findings of the study are inspiring in terms of the examples of exceptional leadership provided by individuals and teams. But they also present cause for concern, because leadership often seems to have happened in spite of, rather than because of, prevailing organisational cultures. The study includes key recommendations for humanitarian agencies, individual leaders and the sector as a whole.
These points represent only a snapshot of the research and the report itself provides a great deal of additional material. Please try and find the time to read the report which launches here on the ALNAP website tomorrow, as we are keen to hear from as many people as possible in order to move this debate forward.
ALNAP’s Study, ‘Leadership in Action: Leading effectively in humanitarian operations’ will be launched in London on 9th June 2011. Full details here.
A forum to discuss the findings and all aspects of humanitarian leadership will be established on the ALNAP website from Monday 13th June.
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