Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation Paints Picture on Art of UN Leadership
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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The report organizes contributions beginning with a broad exploration of what principled leadership at the UN entails, and how leadership can build consensus to address global challenges and strengthen multilateralism.

It concludes by recognizing that for leadership to grow, failures must be recognized; further stock must be taken on the UN Leadership Framework’s implementation across the UN system; and if the UN is to be impactful beyond New York or Geneva, reflections on leadership must be shared beyond these spheres.

A publication by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation on leadership aims to stimulate the conversation on how UN leadership culture, policies and practices can be enhanced to ensure the UN’s relevance and strengthen its impact—particularly at a time when the multilateralism is being tested.

The forward, by Henrik Hammargren, notes that defining “leadership” can be a difficult task, but identifies four characteristics: 1) that it can be both constructive and destructive and therefore must be scrutinized; 2) that it should not be condensed to a particular set of skills; 3) that it is often confused with—or reduced to—management capability; and 4) that the public discourse is too narrowly-focused on the individual, and should also recognize collective responsibility and action.

Making the case for the relevance of UN leadership in the current context, the report offers five precepts that provide a framing for 26 written contributions:

  1. The responsibility of the UN and its mandate: leaders in the UN must act in the midst of—and in response to—endemic poverty, climate change, armed conflicts and human rights violations, and uphold the UN charter in the face of resistance
  2. The recognition that no one has a monopoly of knowledge over ‘leadership’: the voices and viewpoints expressed by the individual thoughtpieces differ, each offering their own perspective
  3. The relationship between leadership and management: noting the above caveat, leadership encompasses management, but the latter can be taught, learned or otherwise implemented, whereas leadership builds on a variety of other traits spanning ethics, integrity and courage
  4. Leadership is not just at the top: leadership is to be sought, enabled and nurtured at all levels of the organization, across a wide range of professional profiles
  5. Anchoring decisions in today’s realities: recognizing that past inspirations regularly surface, the report avoids a “golden age” or “what would Hammarskjöld have done” sentimentality, recalling his words that, “Your duty, your reward – your destiny – are here and now.”

The report organizes contributions beginning with a broad exploration of what principled leadership at the UN entails, and how leadership can build consensus to address global challenges and strengthen multilateralism. The second chapter describes lessons learned from, and attributes of, individual leaders, featuring inspirational stories and an exploration of the question, “who would you want to work for?” The report’s third chapter explores the institutional role of UN leadership in coalition-building, the relevance of feminist leadership to the UN, and the relationships between innovation and leadership. The final chapter takes stock of current leadership initiatives undertaken in the wake of the adoption of the UN System Leadership Framework, and utilizes data related to UN human resources functions to revisit past assumptions and review “unexamined symptoms of ailing leadership.”

Better leadership is essential not only for ensuring trust in the UN—and in multilateralism more broadly—but also for effectively responding to today’s global challenges, the report argues. It highlights a tension between realism and idealism, where leaders must uphold universal values and principles, but also must hold governments and people to account, which involves a unique set of risks and pressures. These pressures, the report recognizes, demand that a leader demonstrate grit and courage, but also humility, compassion and empathy.

The report concludes with three emergent learnings: for leadership to grow, failures must be recognized and discussed; further stock must be taken on the UN Leadership Framework’s implementation across a fragmented UN system; and if the UN is to be impactful beyond New York or Geneva, reflections on leadership must be shared beyond these spheres, going past inward-looking perspectives to include external experiences and stakeholders.

The publication’s focus on UN leadership derives from three factors: 1) the UN reform process, of which strengthening leadership features as a core pillar; 2) turbulence, where the UN is being questioned and having its contributions and budgets reduced; and 3) historical, as 2019 marked the “centennial anniversary of the international civil servant” and the founding of the League of nations. Additionally, this September will feature a celebration of the UN’s 75th anniversary, a key theme of which will be multilateralism. [Publication: The Art of Leadership in the United Nations: Framing what’s blue]

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