Hammarskjöld: A role model for ethical leadership

Although more than half a century has passed since Hammarskjöld’s death, he is still an inspiration for principled leadership. Why is this?

There are plenty of them: international days where awareness and action are demanded on global issues from peace, water, and youth to poetry, yoga and happiness. There seems to be a day for almost every issue and today we celebrate a newer and perhaps less well known one, Global Ethics Day. On this day we are encouraged to explore the meaning of ethics in international affairs and where better to draw inspiration on this issue than from Dag Hammarskjöld?

While this is perhaps an obvious argument from someone who represents the Foundation that bears his name, it is clear to me that Hammarskjöld has set a good example for the leaders and staff of the United Nations. From former Secretary-General Kofi Annan to UN whistleblower Anders Kompass, Dag Hammarskjöld has been cited as a role model for ethical leadership and for integrity, but to understand Hammarskjöld’s impact, you have to understand what was going on in the UN and in the world at the time.

The founding document of the UN

The UN was, as we know, ‘created so save future generations from the scourge of war’, and the organisation was still rather young when Hammarskjöld was appointed to lead it. The geopolitics of the time involved decolonisation, the Cold War and a general mistrust among member states – in combination with a UN that was still being formed both in terms of organisation but also in size, as its membership was continuously expanding.

To navigate these choppy waters Hammarskjöld sought refuge in the UN Charter and the values enshrined therein. He made sure to always secure mandates based on the Charter and when there were obstacles in the Security Council, he turned to the General Assembly to secure the necessary support and mandate.

One may of course wonder why Hammarskjöld was so committed to the UN Charter.  Although it may seem simple and obvious today, from the very beginning he realised the importance of always being guided by the Charter, particularly in his role as Secretary-General. But he also realised quickly that the credibility of the organisation and its operations would be at stake if rules were not followed.

Impartiality in the international civil service

Another aspect that was central to Hammarskjöld was his firm belief that international civil servants should be neutral and impartial to current politics – they should not seek instructions from any government in carrying out their duties. He highlighted this already when he arrived in New York in April 1953: ‘..In my new official capacity the private man should disappear and the international public servant take his place. […] But he is active as an instrument, a catalyst, perhaps an inspirer – he serves.’

This was not a thought that just struck him as he was appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations. It was an insight that he had shaped from an early age inspired by his father Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, Prime Minister during WW1 and (in)famous for his conservative approach and strict adherence to the rule of law and impartial civil service.

Dag Hammarskjöld himself also applied this thinking in his work as a civil servant in the Swedish administration and government. In fact, in order to accept the position as minister without portfolio in the government 1951, he demanded that this be a non-political appointment. In accepting the job as Secretary-General, he could therefore easily step into the role and understood what was needed from him.

Handling pressure and being questioned

Of course it’s not an easy task to lead the UN. When Hammarskjöld arrived in New York, his predecessor Trygve Lie even greeted him with the famous words ‘Welcome to the most impossible job on this earth‘. It must have been immensely complicated to navigate the political landscape in the UN and in the world at that time (as I am sure it is today too), and Hammarskjöld got a fair share of accusations of siding with either bloc.

This culminated during the Congo crisis when the Soviet Union demanded Hammarskjöld’s resignation. Hammarskjöld’s response in the General Assembly became historic, and was followed by a standing ovation: ‘It is very easy to resign. It is not so easy to stay on. It is very easy to bow to the wishes of a Big Power. It is another matter to resist. As is well known to all members of this Assembly, I have done so before on many occasions and in many directions.’

Throughout his years in the UN, and surely due to the criticism, he continued to elaborate his thinking about the role of the international civil servant. In a speech in Oxford in 1961, he elaborates on the responsibilities of the international civil servant both to continuously ensure that they are neutral in their work, but also, as he explained, ‘if integrity in the sense of respect for law and respect for truth were to drive him into positions of conflict with this or that interest, that conflict is a sign of his neutrality and not of his failure to observe neutrality – then it is in line, not in conflict with, his duties as an international civil servant’.

Ethics clearly mattered to Dag Hammarskjöld and weighted heavily on his mind during not only his tenure as Secretary-General but also as a young man and Swedish civil servant. He sought to not only lead but to also lead by example, putting integrity and impartiality above all. This, I would argue, is making ‘the impossible job’ possible.