Fathiaa Abdalla is currently the UNHCR Representative in Kenya, and has served the High Commissioner for two decades in various capacities.
One year ago, as part of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation report The Art of Leadership In the United Nations: Framing What’s Blue, we sat down with Fathiaa to discuss her views on UN leadership. Take a fresh look.
When you think about UN leadership, what immediately comes to mind?
UN leadership, I believe, embodies a visionary mindset with strategic insight. It is the ability to communicate the values of international humanitarian law and the principles of human rights, as well as its relevance for global cooperation, peace and stability.
In my view, a UN leader must be an inspiring advocate for humanity, justice, equality and the inclusion of all sectors of society.
What does it mean to be a UN leader to you? What specific traits do you think a UN leader needs today?
I think a UN leader must be humble and nimble, a good listener and able to make tough decisions and stand by them.
A UN leader needs to be flexible and fast on delivery. They should build constituencies, forge strong partnerships with others and make diversity and inclusion the strengths of the organisation, while safeguarding its integrity, reputation and identity.
Most importantly, a UN leader needs to have a human heart in order to be able to use power in a balanced way and to relate to all people – young and old, women, men and children. Having a sense of humour is also a much-appreciated quality.
In short, the UN leader of today is not only a manager, but also a fellow staff member who colleagues look up to as a model and mentor.
At the same time, for me, as a woman in a position of responsibility, leadership is about being myself, thinking ahead and being accountable for my decisions.
During my long career with UNHCR I have worked with managers who come across as natural leaders. They provide a vision and direction, think outside the box and are not bogged down by daily tasks. They are authentic, relatable individuals who, above all, care about others.
I salute them with gratefulness.
What is unique about UN leadership, as distinct from leadership more generally, or in other ‘industries’ and organisations?
UN leadership reflects the values of international legal instruments signed and ratified by Member States.
As such, it builds wider partnerships with private institutions, academia, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society and the people we serve.
At the same time, it benefits from the UN system’s unique advantages and is called to address particular challenges.
The greatest advantage of the UN is that it is present in every country in the world, and even though each one of its agencies specialises in a specific area, they all function under one system and with the new UN reform under one goal. As a result, different resources, experiences and points of view can be pulled together to deal with a great variety of issues, from climate change to large population movements. It is thanks to our capacity to mobilise the UN system that, when we are called in to save lives, we can go big fast, and always in line with humanitarian principles.
Furthermore, the UN does not only focus on addressing humanitarian and development issues, but it also has a role in building bridges and in helping maintain and restore peace, when required. However, ensuring that the organisation is perceived as neutral by all sides can be a challenge. Indeed, I see neutrality as an art: we carefully cultivate balanced relations with different actors, while remaining true to our values.
Can you give us examples of extraordinary UN leadership that you have witnessed – leadership that went beyond good management?
This is certainly for me the million-dollar question, as I have worked with many charismatic leaders during my tenure with UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. I have had the privilege to collaborate with exception- al managers who acknowledged my contributions and taught me a lot about leadership. Even today, their example fills me with energy and helps me remain motivated.
For instance, about twenty years ago I went to work with refugees in a very remote area. From the moment I arrived there, my supervisor, who was the head of office, became my mentor, encouraging me to take on more responsibilities and to step out of my comfort zone. It was an eye-opening experience, not only because
I realised how quickly I learned, but also because I was exposed to a different type of leadership.
That supervisor was one of the many people, including my previous Representatives, Directors of Bureaus and senior management teams, who appreciated my work and gave me space to progress. For that reason, when I mentor staff, often women, I make sure to challenge and encourage them, so they can reach their goals. I find this aspect of my job so fulfilling that I mentor young people in my free time as well. I strongly believe that young professionals’ voices offer a different perspective that helps diversify and renew organisations, such as the UN.
There are also many prominent UN leaders whom I admire. The late Secretary-General Kofi Annan was a remarkable man who could connect with people of all backgrounds and seniority levels. His leadership skills inspired many inside and outside the organisation, particularly those of us from Africa.
The late Ogata Sadako was the first and, so far, only female High Commissioner for Refugees and held the position for 10 years. She oversaw many large-scale emergency responses with courage and decisiveness that enabled her to take unprecedented decisions, such as providing a clear and predictable pathway for UNHCR’s engagement in situations of internally displaced people. At the end of her term, she correctly predicted that for UNHCR to remain relevant, it had to be quick, smart, effective and adaptable to a fast-changing environment.
António Guterres, the current Secretary-General of the United Nations and our former High Commissioner, stands out for his result-oriented mindset and clear vision. Notably, during his tenure, UNHCR took the lead in the protection of internally displaced people.
The current High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has used his extensive knowledge from years of service with the agency to find solutions to the challenges that refugees and UNHCR staff face. As a result, he and his executive team have made integrity, diversity and inclusion high priorities within the scope of our work.
What concrete measures could be taken to strengthen the practice of leadership at the UN and/or to promote leadership at the UN?
There are certain measures that we, at the UN, should take system-wide to strengthen our leadership.
First, we need to adhere to integrity, accountability and management of all risks, including reputational. Performance at high standards is important to our work and credibility. In order to address issues and gaps, it is crucial that we provide guidance to colleagues and praise their achievements, while also discussing areas of improvement and mistakes that have potentially been made. Even though such conversations can be difficult at times, clear communication can turn them into conflict-free and positive experiences that help individuals and the whole team move forward. Given how fast-paced our environment is, it is of course difficult to spend a lot of time mentoring colleagues. People need to be quick on their feet and learn on the job. If they are ambitious, they will need to show commitment. However, if they know that their team is supportive and willing to offer second chances, and if they are given opportunities to improve and progress in their career, they will be more motivated to do their best.
Also, UNHCR and the UN as a whole are undergoing major changes, dictated by a need to find new ways to address the world’s most pressing issues. In a bid to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN agencies are working closer together than ever before. At the same time, they are called to work at an unprecedented level of intensity, without losing their efficiency. At UNHCR, the best way to foster our partnership with others is by finding common issues that they can contribute to managing refugees. Implementing the Global Compact on Refugees is in our respective interests. Our goal is to be a centre of excellence in our field and to contribute meaningfully to the humanitarian, development and peace nexus. These efforts should be implemented from the top and bottom.
Furthermore, it has also become clear to me that we are in dire need of more role models and coaches for young UN staff so that we can give them the best career start possible. As an organisation, we strive to attract young talent with top-notch education and new ideas. If we want them to make the best use of their skills and invest in the organisation, we need to provide them with space to learn and try out ideas, be more open to innovation, and foster a more positive culture and working environment. For them to become the leaders of tomorrow, they must participate more in decision-making, consultations and transparency efforts. Only if young staff members have a seat at the table will we realise the vision of a transformative and innovative UN.
There are other issues that should concern us as well. Abuses of power can have a significant impact on the staff’s performance and mental health. Therefore, we should always take such incidents seriously. Diversity at senior management level is a challenge that can only be addressed by identifying the issues that people face at every step of the ladder. It is also important for those who have leadership roles to share good practices among them. Finally, networking is an excellent tool for seasoned and aspiring leaders, and it should be encouraged formally and informally.
On a personal note, as a woman who has been heading large country operations for a number of years with the support of wonderful colleagues, I try to lead by example and strive for work-life balance. It is particularly important to me to understand my colleagues’ needs, so we can foster together an environment that will motivate us all to do our best. For instance, when I was in Afghanistan, I worked with UNHCR’s Headquarters to initiate a set of measures that would promote duty of care for staff in order to help them cope with the realities of a conflict zone and respond efficiently to the needs of the people we serve.
Finally, my deepest gratitude goes to my family for their unconditional love, support to fulfil my dreams and for understanding the noble objective of my work.
Fathiaa Abdalla is currently the UNHCR Representative in Kenya. She has three decades of experience, having held senior leadership positions in the UN and international NGOs in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and UN Headquarters. With UNHCR, she has served as Representative to Afghanistan, Deputy Representative in Iran and Yemen, and Head of Operations in Western Sahara. Fathiaa was interviewed in her personal capacity. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the UN.