Feminist leadership: an inspiration for all – An interview with Bela Kapur

“The practice of feminist leadership is not the prerogative of women leaders only.”

Bela Kapur specialises in supporting women’s participation in making, building and sustaining peace, and works with local and international women’s rights organisations. She has worked with the UN, the UK’s Department for International Development, the OSCE in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai.

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 Bela to discuss her views on UN leadership. We’re re-posting the interview here as part of our new blog series on the topic.

What are the attributes of feminist leadership?

There is probably not one all-encompassing definition of feminist leadership. Yet, there are a number of attributes that women leaders working in conflict contexts displayed and talked about.

Many women used the word ‘courage’, which is manifested in different ways, notably through the ability, despite the fear, to articulate one’s ideas in front of the party that resists change, be it the police forces or political leaders. ‘You feel fear, but stand up and do your duty’. This courage also drives the ability and willingness to come up with radical ideas, to break taboos.

Women also spoke of the need, in addition to courage, of listening to the other, including the other who has or is committing the harm. For these women, listening to others is part of a larger imperative of empathy, which some define simply as acting as a human being, and making connections, reaching out to other human beings across the line.

To do that, one must be driven by a sense of fairness and curiousity. The women emphasised the need to recognise and respect people according to their capacities and aspirations, and not their background, their status or their qualifications. To recognise and respect, one must want to learn, to reflect and to adapt. All three actions are marks of curiosity, which is at once externally and internally oriented.

Finally, these women leaders expressed confidence in themselves, in others, in their vision and in their faith.

For me, this confidence is the core element of these women’s persistent patience: persistent patience to understand and to struggle for common ground. It underpins their resilience, to keep pushing up the hill, despite the resistance and the setbacks in their fight for women’s right and to build peace.

What makes these leadership traits ‘feminist’; is it because they are embodied and practiced by women leaders, or because many of these leaders work to advance women’s rights?

Not at all. I believe that what makes this leadership feminist are people’s – in this case women’s – consciousness in going through life by looking out for discrimination and seeking inclusion. The women’s rights movement is grounded in speaking up and acting against a long history of exclusionary spaces and marginalising practices. So the concept may have come about from the women’s rights agenda, but its scope is certainly not restricted to women’s rights.

Many women may have directly experienced discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion and this may have provided their own awakening to take action against discrimination and for inclusion. But the practice of feminist leadership is not the prerogative of women leaders only. The term feminist leadership is also used to distinguish and contrast those practices of the women leaders with whom I have worked with current practices of leadership in peace and security spaces. Those practices arise largely from and are dominated by the subconscious adoption and practice of masculinist leadership traits – where man is seen as ‘the default human’ – which generally do not seek to progress inclusion.

For many of the women I have spoken to, the values with which they sought to abide were necessary to cope with life now, and to bring about a post-conflict vision of a feminist peace, defined as a space of political, economic and socio-economic equality, where all have the freedom to exercise their rights. They further spoke of feminist leadership as residing in the link between this vision, the values and practices. This link defines their work for women’s rights and building peace, and this link speaks to the integrity required, in being, in their words, the same person in the personal and the professional.

Being the same person in the personal and the professional therefore means that the exercise of leadership must be done through co-leading, co-creation, co-owning and compromising. These professional practices are eminently reflective of personal values. If they were any different, their effectiveness would be reduced.

These ‘professional practices’ listed here, such as co-leading and co-creating, are strikingly similar to what one can read in the UN’s latest leadership documents; is the UN therefore already practicing feminist leadership? If not, what is needed?

Having left the UN a few years ago now, it is difficult for me to comment on whether spaces within the UN today embody the practices of feminist leadership as discussed here. But I think that what matters is not just that these practices, including of co-leading and co-creating, be listed in leadership documents, or even included in leadership reviews, training etc. To be meaningful, effective, and transformative – for that is the ultimate goal – and for the UN to be a transformational leader in the world and to lead transformation in the world – these practices must be linked to personal values. That’s what makes them constitutive of leadership, beyond management. But that is also why it is difficult to capture them in standard UN management instruments.

And therefore the question of what the UN can do to foster and nurture feminist leadership is challenging.

For one, I think that feminist leadership needs to be modelled by UN staff, including senior staff. Leaders must design and implement practices of genuine inclusiveness, on a daily basis. Very few tasks should escape this imperative, as well as very few moments with colleagues. The disempowering phenomenon of the ‘back benchers’ must be tackled head on. Remembering what one woman leader once told me, it is important to reflect on how one can be hierarchical in tasks, but not in relationships.

Beyond modelling it, the UN needs to speak to it, to discuss what it means and what it looks like so that its practice in the unique space that is the UN can be understood. Across the organisation, the UN’s voice must refer to the value and practice of courage, curiosity, fairness and so forth.

And the UN needs to recognise and value it, if not reward it. I am aware of the risks involved: bureaucratic incentives (through awards and rewards) can fuel superficial practices to get ahead. Their pursuit can sully the underlying values. Maybe the results of feminist leadership approaches, and the inspiration they provide, are sufficient. But surely its values can better suffuse many aspects of human resource management, from recruitment to promotions, as well as daily collegial relationships.

And here, there are other challenges as well. Feminist leadership is about bringing about long-term metamorphosis, one that also reflects major societal transformations currently underway. For the UN, it is therefore also a matter of relevance. But will the organisation exercise the kind of persistent patience that these women do? And how many UN staff, including senior leaders, will demonstrate the courage, self-confidence and vision to let go of some of their formal authority and power to exercise feminist leadership so that they and the organisation can bring about real transformation?

Bela Kapur has extensive experience in human rights protection in conflict, including capacity development of civil society and state actors (Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Iraq, Palestine, Timor-Leste, Ukraine), wide-ranging experience of UN peace operations, including conflict assessment, mission planning and start-up deployment (Libya, Sudan), conflict mediation (Syria), and Headquarters political support to peace operations, where she was the Secretary of the 2015 High-Level Panel Review on UN Peace Operations. Bela Kapur is qualified as a solicitor in England and Wales and an attorney in New York. She holds a Master’s degree in International and Comparative Law from Georgetown University Law Center and an LL.B from the University of Buckingham.

Marc Jacquand By Marc Jacquand

Marc Jacquand is as a Senior Advisor to the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. He is an adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University where he teaches risk management in conflict contexts.

Marc worked two years with the Executive Office of the Secretary-General António Guterres on strategic planning and UN reform. Starting his career in investment banking, he worked in the field of micro finance for FINCA International before joining the Microfinance Unit of the United Nations Capital Development Fund. He went on to work on conflict and post crisis responses both at Headquarters, for the Development Cooperation Office and for the UN presence in the occupied Palestinian territory, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. Marc graduated from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and the HEC School of Management in France.

The Art of Leadership in the UN

Framing What's Blue

This publication frames the bigger picture of UN leadership. It strives to stimulate a conversation on how UN leadership could be enhanced to ensure its relevance and strengthen its impact at a time when both the UN and multilateralism are being tested.

Read the publication