LEADING IN A VUCA ENVIRONMENT: What have we learned from humanitarian leaders

By Camil El Khoury Managing Partner ighcc and Humanitarian Executive Coach

Working with humanitarian organizations for the past 15 years, wasn’t just aligned with our purpose in ighcc of creating a positive change, but also an amazing learning curve for us. 

As we go to deliver our leadership programs, assessment or coaching sessions to humanitarian leaders, we learn that they have no choice but to operate at the utmost efficiency – A mistake in the field is not just reflected in the budget sheets as in most corporate, but this could also mean an aid package that isn’t delivered to its intended recipients, children with no access to clean water or food, lack of healthcare assistance in critical conditions among many other repercussions. In addition, humanitarian leaders have to manage many stakeholders they do not have power over and in many cases, stakeholders that have contradicting needs and agendas. 

So what have we learned from humanitarian leadership that can be applied to any type of leadership:

1- Curiosity as one of the most important competencies 

As humanitarian leaders enter their territories they have no choice but to have complete empathy. They do not judge, they do not try to apply their own filters, all they do is try to understand what are the needs of their stakeholders. They carefully learn to understand their team members, their aid recipients and the different government and non government agencies that can either facilitate or block their efforts. A particular point that struck me when I was working with successful humanitarian leaders is that they always come with humility and an unbiased attitude, the less they assume the better they can deal with people from different backgrounds.

2- An unshakeable focus on their widely important goal. 

One of the most remarkable actions of humanitarian leaders is their focus on their most important goal; providing aid, healthcare support or any type of social or infrastructure project is what motivates them to achieve. No matter what the politics of their managers or team members, these leaders are always motivated to keep their eye on their purpose. Imagine if every single leader in the corporate world had this focus on the purpose of their organization and the end users…

3- An attitude of community

In the humanitarian sector, and since a key focus is on the recipients, agencies generally, have a sense of community. Surely they compete for funds from donors, however since they have a clear goal that is linked to critical services for beneficiaries, it is optimal to join forces so that there could be a common task force to solve similar problems. I have to admit that in practice, this is an area that is still under development, however several projects are being put in place to address it. I was honored to be part of GELI (The Global Executive Leadership Initiative)  where we took 25 leaders from different humanitarian agencies on a year-long learning journey. In addition to the great insights that the participants acquired from the program, building a community where they can help each other in projects was a very valuable takeaway. The end result was that leaders were able to achieve their results, faster and more efficiently with that systems leadership approach.

4- Mental health for the leader and the team 

Due to the conditions humanitarian leaders work in, mental health should always be a top priority. People have to communicate & acknowledge their feelings, be heard, and engage in stress relieving and wellness activities. Reflecting on  hundreds of executive coaching sessions that I have conducted with leaders in the sector, I have noticed that the strongest people are the ones that can admit their flaws, their fears and their development areas. Prioritizing wellness moments for the team is a key performance criteria. 

5- Learning from adversity 

Perhaps one of the most underrated points is that humanitarian leaders reflect on  adverse moments so that they can use those reflections for their next mission. What inspired me in my interactions with successful humanitarian leaders is that most of them look at past adverse events with a positive mindset and remember the developmental and learning points of the experience. Reflecting on past experiences is a key component to build confidence, resilience and tenacity. 

There is so much we can learn from humanitarian leadership and adapt in a corporate context, and the reason is that those leaders have only one choice; making things happen, pragmatically no matter what. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *