Spend enough time amidst one of the world’s ever present humanitarian disasters, and you may become outraged by the failings of leadership. You might witness aid programmes stagnate under the morass of infighting, power exploited for political gain, or morale vanish as leaders obfuscate and deliberate.
Spend a little longer however, and acts of true leadership reveal themselves. You watch as teams are galvanised, crippling dilemmas resolved, intractable problems overcome or action sparked which brings aid to people living in crisis.
On reflection, it may become apparent that leadership, however flawed or inspired, is one of the most critical determinants of success or failure of any emergency response.
A humanitarian operation is desperately unforgiving territory for leadership. There is little tolerance for failings and few rewards for risk taking. So much is beyond control: fresh outbreaks of conflict, geopolitical wrangling, oppressive and unpredictable regimes, recurring seismic tremors or relentless demands by stakeholders wielding competing influences.
Whatever remains within the leader’s grasp is overshadowed by the sheer scale of the task, prey to problems which arise at startling speed, living conditions fraught with hardship and the inexorable pressure of ensuring security of the team, and scarcity… of everything.
At its core, leadership in such an environment demands an emotional resilience that few manage to develop and fewer sustain. The innermost test is perhaps the most taxing; the battle to stave off cynicism, the void of emotional support, the toll on spirits when things don’t get any better. This, compounded by the need to remain a pillar for others.
Few other contexts come close to the leadership challenges of a humanitarian crisis
And yet, the international humanitarian community finds itself in an untenable situation of its own making; on the one hand it’s ambitious undertakings rest almost entirely in the hands of those leading them, and on the other, it has failed to adequately value the importance of such leadership.
And the omission is deeply ingrained. Although humanitarian organizations and donors themselves acknowledge that the humanitarian response provided is not good enough, the issue of leadership is rarely confronted. The dominant management framework that underpins almost all humanitarian endeavour (and funding) the world over – the logical framework – utterly fails to value the role of leadership in successful programme planning and delivery.
And so the most important questions of humanitarian leadership remain without adequate response:
– How can courageous and inspiring humanitarian leadership be developed?
– How can a humanitarian organisation build a culture of excellent, accountable leadership?
– How can humanitarian endeavours become infused by acts of such leadership?
Wasafiri is deeply committed to generating leadership action to serve people living in crisis. We believe that developing effective leaders, supported by organisations who value the importance of such leadership, is fundamental to responding successfully to the acute demands of today’s humanitarian crises.