Beyond Superman: humanitarian leadership today

What does it mean to be an effective leader in the humanitarian space today?  A new report by ALNAP provides some surprising answers.

Published in early June, Leadership in Action: Leading effectively in humanitarian operations reveals the disconnect between accepted theory and the real-world practice of humanitarian leadership today.

“Visions of leadership still sit in a largely “male” and Western mould” writes IRIN Global about the report, “Thus many interviewees believed effective leadership must necessarily entail being a workaholic, describing effective leaders as being ‘married to their jobs’.”

The kicker?  This model is actually surprisingly ineffective when put into practice in the field. Paul Knox Clarke, ALNAP’s head of research and communications, sums up their findings in this video interview with Alertnet:

What we saw emerge was that this idea of the super-leader, the leader as some kind of superhero, really doesn’t work.  The most effective leaders are [those] who play the role of host, facilitator, and convener.   And it does raise the question of whether we’ve all been thinking about leadership the wrong way for some time, whether rather than leadership being something that individuals do, leadership in humanitarian responses is something that teams of people do.

“Leadership is something that teams of people do.”  It’s a powerful idea.  IRIN’s summary of the report goes on: “It is often “personal qualities” that differentiate decent and brilliant leaders […] 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”.

These skills are ones in which women and local staff will often excel — the very people, however, who find it most difficult to break into operational leadership positions in the humanitarian sector.

The result, according to Knox Clarke?  “The system is missing out on a vast reserve of potential, [as well as the] political experience and contextual knowledge which is required to lead effectively.”

I’d love to see a discussion of this report and its findings at the 2013 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, wouldn’t you?

Hat tip to my friend and colleague Terra MacKinnon of UNHCR for sharing the original report and video.