Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Lead and Let Lead: Empowering Courage in International Conflict Missions

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Lead and Let Lead: Empowering Courage in International Conflict Missions

Article excerpt

[B]asic ingredients of leadership are curiosity and daring. Leaders wonder about everything, want to learn as much as they can, are willing to take risks, experiment, try new things. They do not worry about failure, but embrace errors, knowing they will learn from them.1

[T]he most successful leaders [see] their primary responsibility as unleashing the talent of others so the collective vision [can] be realized.2

International organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union (EU), impact millions of people's lives in conflict areas and in the developing world through their field missions in the areas of peace and security, human rights, and development.3 However, facing criticism for a wide range of issues, including allegations of corruption, low accountability, sexual abuse, waste, and ineffectiveness, these missions frequently face calls for more effective and transformative leadership. Many internal initiatives have sought to address the multiple leadership challenges associated with running missions in complex conflict and post- conflict environments, but they place too much emphasis on leadership at the executive level, already somewhat marred by political compromise, or on internal cadre members, ignoring the structural peculiarities of field missions, which are marked by a multitude of contracting modalities and high mobility across organizations. They also continue to overlook junior female managers, who tend to leave mission environments more frequently than their male counterparts, often just as these female managers would be entering more senior posts.

Leadership in the field must originate at the middle management level, whose members represent and embody their organizations at the grass- roots level every day. Identified talent must be empowered early on, even if the middle managers in question do not form part of an official internal pool or prescribed career trajectory. For this to occur, middle managers with intrinsic institutional values and relevant technical and executive skills must dare to assume leadership roles, which in turn requires senior managers to recognize and empower leadership amongst their middle management, rewarding courage instead of assimi- lation. Institutional policy in such an environment can only achieve so much; successful talent management cannot only be accomplished through standardized indicators and best prac- tice rules that are difficult to enforce in a mission environment. Instead, talent can only be reaped consistently by means of organizational cultures that encourage senior managers to recognize existing leadership potential and foster more courageous decision-making at more junior levels-requiring talent management on an individual basis where the system falls short.


Few international organizations these days are manned by the arche- type international civil servant with a lifetime of faithful service and inti- mate knowledge of mandate, vision, and internal rules and procedures of their home institution. Field missions and local offices in particular are increasingly staffed by 'roving professionals': police officers, soldiers, lawyers, or civilian personnel seconded by their home governments; young professionals moving from posting to posting, and from organization to organization, depending on the lengths of their temporary contracts; consultants and experts; and other staff who never obtained, or chose not to apply for, more permanent posts at headquarters. In UN peace missions, for example, the majority of serving international staff "have [fewer] than three years prior UN experience,"4 and EU civilian crisis management missions, in existence since 2003, are predominantly staffed by member states' secondees.5 In general, it is much more common for aid and develop- ment workers these days to move between organizations, entities, and duty stations than was the case only a few years ago, and the leadership of many international organizations is often recruited externally, not grown inter- nally. …

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