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Leadership - from lexicon to understanding

Patricia McIlreavy

By Patricia McIlreavy on 4 February 2013.

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 Leadership is a concept that runs like an electric current through every evaluation, study and anecdotal criticism made about the humanitarian system and our ability to respond effectively. The word is charged with expectations. We qualify it, often negatively, demonstrating repeatedly how a strong aspiration can be weakened by the mere addition of an adjective. Poor. Ineffective. Controlling.

Glorified for its mystical promise of salvation, leadership is also a tawdry over-worn excuse for when something goes wrong. Yet we, the humanitarian community still seek answers for all our ills through chanting its mantra. Leadership. Leadership. Leadership.

For the past two years, I have been up-close and personal within the Inter-Agency Standing Committee's Working Group as we developed a “transformative agenda” to guide our action for an improved coordinated response in emergencies. We spoke at length of three main areas that needed attention - leadership, coordination and strategy; all the while knowing that for the latter two to occur, the first needs to be empowered, effective, competent, and humanitarian.

At times I truly wondered why anyone would take on the task of Humanitarian Coordinator (HC). The job has a thousand responsibilities, 10,000 critics and millions of people who depend on the creation of an enabling environment for collective action.

Yet no one person, however broad their shoulders, can take on this responsibility alone. The transformative agenda highlights that the leadership gap within a coordinated response does not lie solely with the Humanitarian Coordinator. The collective leadership of the Humanitarian Country Team is also central to a response’s success.

Unfortunately, a team does not become a team merely by assignation of a moniker. Everyone on a team has to have a common goal, shared values and an understanding of their role. Some of this can be dictated via guidance but other aspects of our success will rely on the will of the group, and, yes, the leadership of the individuals that comprise it.

How can a diverse and heterogeneous sector such as that of the NGO community be appropriately represented in this body? Will our voice be heard and welcomed? And if so, whose voice is it, and how do we ensure represents the wider NGO community?

Questions all well-deserving of answers. Not only for ourselves, but for the people we serve.

And to this end, we need your help.

InterAction is launching a series of studies in 2013 examining Perceptions, Expectations and Realities of NGO Coordination in Humanitarian Response. Our goal is to document the current role and quality of the NGO community's contributions within a coordinated response. All humanitarian actors need to understand better the operational implications of the transformative agenda.

The first of these studies explores the effectiveness of NGO representation within Humanitarian Country Teams. If you have worked within a crisis response, than we want to hear from YOU.

The survey can be found at and will take approximately 15 minutes to complete.

As NGOs are the key implementers in humanitarian response and are often closest to those affected by crises, our voice within strategic discussions, prioritization exercises and advocacy messaging is critical. Through this research, InterAction hopes to improve our own awareness of our role and the responsibility that comes with it.

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