Self-discovery and ethical reflections on leadership at Hammarskjöld’s summer home

In this Q&A with Ariane Sabet and Henrik Hammargren, we learn about the recent ‘Deep Dive’ leadership training held for senior UN staff at Hammarskjöld’s Backåkra.

From 26-29th of August, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation together with the UN System Staff College organised a joint learning experience titled, Leading for the UN: A Deep Dive. The training brought 12 senior UN staff from around the globe to Dag Hammarskjöld’s remote summer home in southern Sweden. We sat down with Henrik Hammargren, Executive Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, and Ariane Sabet, Learning Portfolio Manager at the UN System Staff College, to learn more about the joint initiative. 

Why has the UN System Staff College developed this learning experience?

Ariane: We have offered this leadership training for three years now, with excellent feedback. Our reason for originally developing such a leadership deep dive was driven by the needs of UN leaders in this time of manifold challenges. Particularly, senior UN staff have expressed the wish to attend a programme with strong emphasis on self-discovery for leaders within the UN. That’s how Leading for the UN: A Deep Dive was born.

What has the partnership with the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation meant for the UN System Staff College?

Ariane: We were aware of the interesting work the Foundation was involved in and wanted to explore possible areas of collaboration. Through our discussion, we felt the Foundation could add a unique and timely element to the programme: Dag Hammarskjöld’s enduring legacy as a leader and his timeless emphasis on ethics and integrity. In our time of constant change, our colleagues face daunting challenges and they take their responsibilities very seriously.

In this partnership, we see not only a solid track record of the Foundation’s work manifested, but also an agility and adaptability to the needs of UN staff today. We felt there is a lot of synergy and this training with UN leaders from all around the world is just the beginning of our collaboration. Hammarskjöld’s legacy has become an anchoring point for the training and the location has played an important part in getting people into the right mindset. The remote and humble nature of Backåkra, Hammarskjöld’s summer home, has helped participants approach their time here in a way where one can solely focus on service.

Why has the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation become a part of this training?

Henrik: We have come to realise that there is an expectation that we should work on this specific part of Hammarskjöld’s legacy, which is tied to leadership in the UN. We often reflect over how much of what Hammarskjöld did is still relevant today. It is also striking how many times you meet leaders and staff in the UN and Hammarskjöld is the person that people refer to, both for personal and professional reasons. So for us this partnership has been very important and this year it feels particularly timely because of the centennial of the international civil service, established with the creation of the League of Nations in 1919.

This training also brings about an opportunity to focus on issues that are very much needed in these times; ethics and integrity. It is also about bringing leadership back to the core values of the UN, as they are stated in the UN Charter. Sometimes we need to be more simple in our approach, reminded that simplicity creates clarity; go back to the basics of the UN – its Charter.  It brings clarity to what the UN is about, and I think speaking to participants this is also what has been striking for them in coming here.

What have participants discovered about Dag Hammarskjöld and his leadership?

Henrik: They have learned how Hammarskjöld stayed focused on the core values and the basic tasks of the UN throughout his leadership. He can be an inspiring role model. There are many things today of course that have changed, that must be recognised; it is not just about applying the leadership that was introduced 70 years ago. The world has changed: there are new challenges but that focus must remain the same. Those values are equally important. That is why we do this. It has become core part of our work, and I hope that it will develop further through this partnership with the UN System Staff College.

Ariane: I think participants have learnt how innovative Hammarskjöld was in his leadership; how he drew on his creativity hand in hand with integrity and ethics, anchoring always his work in the principles of the UN. During senior leadership trainings over the past years, we are seeing a re-ignited interest in ethical leadership. It is actually a longing of participants to connect on issues of collective leadership, and it is useful to have inspirational figures such as Hammarskjöld to learn how they shaped situations and conditions relevant to our work.

What has surprised you about this training?

Henrik: It always strikes me how well people, especially UN Staff, relate to Hammarskjöld. You don’t have to have that much knowledge about him to connect with who he was, and it is interesting to see how quickly a bond is established. I also think that with this program being held here at Backåkra, which is an intimate space, we have noticed how quickly the leaders who are participating have been able to engage on the personal dimension of leadership.

It is easy to focus on the big challenges in leadership, but we often forget to reflect on how much individuals accomplish. It is essential to have ideals, relate to others and be inspired when you are a leader. The stories these participants tell show how challenging it can be to display leadership in their different international contexts, but it is remarkable how by sharing, sometimes surprisingly personal reflections, they are finding a way here to strike a balance between the many different dimensions of leadership.

Ariane: It is surprising how quickly people feel safe and comfortable to share. There is great intellect in the room, but also a lot of heart and emotion to be shared. I feel this partnership and being here at Backåkra has made it possible for participants to feel this way and to be so open, and I believe the impact of the training on the participants will be remarkable.

It is also encouraging how strong the sense of responsibility of participants who attend the programme is, a realisation of the necessity to continuously further your own leadership development, to be better servants to this big mandate. It is surprising and heartening how universal Hammarskjöld is; people from different cultures and walks of life coming to Backåkra as participants can relate to him and his ideals. He is truly “ours” – the UN’s, but also humanity’s- and his reflections have a universal quality.


Ariane Sabet By Ariane Sabet

Ariane Sabet is Learning Portfolio Manager in the Knowledge Centre for Leadership and Management at the UN System Staff College. She is responsible for the design and delivery of the UN Leadership Exchange for colleagues at the USG and ASG level, the UN Leaders Programme for Directors, and Leadership, Women and the UN programmes, as well as a range of other high-impact initiatives. Prior to joining UNSSC, Ariane served as faculty at Norwich University’s Master of Arts in Diplomacy, focusing mainly on Global Diplomacy and State-Sponsored Terrorism. Previously, she held academic positions in Slovakia, Switzerland and the United States in the areas of International Relations, Political Science and Management.

Henrik Hammargren By Henrik Hammargren

About Henrik Hammargren

During the course of his career, Hammargren has spent twenty-five years in managerial and policy analyst roles, advising bi- and multilateral development co-operation, serving the Swedish government and with the OECD. Areas of focus have included humanitarian aid, conflict management and peacebuilding, and support to democracy and human rights. In addition, he has ten years of in-country experience from Eastern-, Southern and Northern Africa and South East Asia, mainly in conflict and post-conflict situations.

Recent tasks have included the Chairmanship of the Financing and Aid Architecture of the OECD DACs Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF) and work on developing Peace- and Statebuilding Goals and Compacts for improved aid delivery in Fragile States within the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. Prior to engagement in development co-operation, Hammargren worked in the private sector.

Annika Östman By Annika Östman

Annika Östman is the Head of Communications at the Foundation and leads our outreach and strategic communications work.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked on climate change communications at the World Bank in Washington. Her work there included media outreach at COP20, organising high-level events at WB-IMF Annual Meetings in Peru and Japan, and producing a myriad of digital content, such as a film about climate-smart agriculture in Costa Rica. Annika also worked in the Africa Region of the World Bank, both at headquarters and in Liberia. Annika has an MA in International Broadcast Journalism from City University in London and has also worked as a TV Producer. She holds a BA in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.