Savita Hande is a Principal Security Advisor at the Director level in the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). She is a pioneer who joined the institution in 2002 and her contributions to the Department’s development is making a significant impact. Hande showed her ability to manage many crisis situations effectively in the difficult UN field locations. Under her leadership the ‘UN Stay and Deliver’ approach in a safe and secure manner was highlighted as an effective way to engage with country authorities in complex security environments. Before moving to Iraq, she worked in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Israel/occupied Palestine, Indonesia, Sierra Leone and Southern Africa. From 1990 to 2002, Savita was a Police Service Officer in the Civil Services of India where she was responsible for assignments at the senior leadership level.
The responses in this piece are written in Savita Hande’s personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the UN.
In our latest contribution in the ‘Art of leadership in the United Nations’, we highlighted that at 31% female representation in United Nations field operations is low and we learnt that there are even less women in crisis-affected countries. This is where the UN’s reputation is shaped and where most resources are spent. This interview takes the conversation further by exploring Hande’s ideas of leadership, representing the UN in crisis affected countries and leadership’s importance for security.
Savita, when you think about Leadership in the UN what comes to your mind?
I completed a very challenging but important assignment in Afghanistan this year . Now, I am serving as the Principal Security Advisor at the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). The majority of my experience is in the field across different continents, so much of what I say today, is shaped by my professional experience in field settings and through various crisis management experiences. For many it’s evident, but I want to state it. UN leadership goes beyond national, ethnic and racial boundaries. It makes us evolve and to look beyond the horizons that are not even visible, and that’s the evolutionary change I have seen in myself since over two decades. I have good friends from (the) Indian police service, going 20 – 30 years back, and they also say the same thing. I think that’s a beautiful, spiritually evolving part of leadership.
When I think about UN leadership in the field, a few things came to my mind. I am constantly reminded of the collaborative nature of UN leadership. ‘It is not about command and control, as it was in my primary training in police service. I have learned that I am a much better UN leader if I am collaborative’.
In my 30 years of field experience [and] of those 10 years with the Indian police, I have gradually come to understand leadership as a service. I believe that if we take that approach, we are much better in our own humble way to lead wherever we are supposed or asked to lead. I become a much better leader and advisor to the UN, if I understand the requirements. What are the needs of UN funds and programmes? How can development and humanitarian actors work together? ‘How can I strengthen the collaborative nature of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and the Department of Peace Operations (DPO)?’
As someone who spent the majority of [my] time in difficult and challenging security prone UN field settings, over the years I understood that the kind of leadership needed today requires a lot of willingness for collaboration and trust within the teams. Our roles especially in UNDSS, and more so in crisis are extremely demanding. We need to stay adaptive and remain flexible. For example, if we like it or not, we need to engage with the Taliban in Afghanistan or Hamas in Gaza or the Shia factions in Iraq to create the conditions for the UN and its staff to operate safely and fulfil their functions. So that the UN entities can reach the people who are in dire need of help. The UNDSS along with other relevant UN entities must interact with the state and non-state armed actors in conflict zones, or with the de facto authorities those control the areas. These are extremely important for the UN to move ahead safely in these zones. UNDSS leadership in challenging times and locations is critical for the safe UN stay and deliver in these locations.
I read some of your ‘Art of Leadership in the United Nations’ interviews before, and particularly Kanni Wignaraja’s interview ‘Leadership not by title’ caught my eye. I can truly identify with the concept of ‘incomplete leadership’. As a leader, you need to get the best expertise and skills from your team. Get it all together. Bring it all out and project your team’s work through you so you become a conduit. We are not anything more than that. As I am getting older, I’m getting humbler in this process. But I must admit, I remain a learner when it comes to exercising leadership. I’m trying to constantly get better at it.
What are, for you, the most relevant shifts or trends on the global context that shapes the way we need to think about leadership in the UN today?
I joined the United Nations in 2000 in Kosovo, as a peacekeeper. I held a police advisory role. Later, I went back to the Indian police in 2001 and later returned to the UN through UN security coordination office (UNSECOORD) assignment in Indonesia which was precursor of UNDSS After formation of UNDSS in 2006, I found myself in Jerusalem between 2008 to 2012, and I witnessed the Arab Spring originating in 2011. I still remember the events in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
For me personally, there have been a few significant global shifts that shaped UN security management and security leadership – a field I have spent most time in. The most relevant global shifts in international security, I would say, occurred after 9-11 and around after the Arab Spring. In some areas, we [are] still responding to their profound impact it had on in countries, societies and globally.
Over the course of 20 years, I had an opportunity – and maybe I would even say I was fortunate enough – to work in two countries that have been most affected by these global shifts, namely in Afghanistan and in Iraq. What was conceived and then continued as ‘war on terror’, and then how [the] security situation developed in these two countries and in the regions over the years is still impacting these parts of the world. Much of [the] structure and policies in UN Security Management System of which UNDSS is custodian of, have appeared to have crystalised over last two decades. While traversing through some of these significant locations, I think, I organically grew with these policies likewise [with] many other UNDSS personnel.
And at the United Nations, we are responding to these global shifts. Since the last several months, after Afghanistan and many other crises situations, the Ukraine response has also occupied a central stage. We at UNDSS are enabling the UN to stay and deliver during difficult times in many countries. That substantive, although unseen contribution [in] hindsight is energising but when managing the crises, handling many unknowns, recommending on security management decisions on how to stay and deliver. It could get demanding and at times highly stressful on [the] UNDSS field leadership. For instance, last year the UN in Afghanistan was in the focus of the world after a gradual Taliban takeover of the country from June-August 2021 prior to final US and NATO forces withdrawal by the end of August. [The] whole world was watching us. While [a] majority of the embassies and their staff departed and were evacuated after 15 August, [I was one of] a few UN international personnel who stayed back in very high-risk scenarios, handling many unknowns. After establishing [a] working relationship with the de facto authorities and assurances of their protection, a quick return of the evacuated UN international personnel followed and for some months the UN became [the] only available means to provide for the basic needs of people in dire states in a harsh winter amidst the sanctions on the de facto authorities. We collectively managed the situation. The UN remains at the centre stage in-country.
I think [what happened in] Afghanistan that I personally witnessed – although only one of many such examples – shows how relevant the United Nations is today.
Climate change is yet another significant global shift. It is changing the global context and how we exercise and think about ‘security’. Tomorrow’s wars could be fought on and because of climate change.
And I believe that climate insecurity would lead to more civil unrest and wars. Iraq, where I am currently stationed since [the] last few months, is an example of one of the worst climate affected countries. When you are stationed in a country like Iraq, you cannot think about security without taking climate change into consideration.
The question about whether the UN is still relevant, is irrelevant to me, after what I had experienced in these field locations. I do believe in the UN. Obviously, everyone goes through some pessimism over the course of 20 years. I realise that every job has its negatives. I am convinced however that the UN is still the answer to many of these global shifts.
Your career spans over 20 years and in various country contexts. You have worked in Kosovo, Indonesia, East Timor, South Sudan and recently in Afghanistan. Does the unique, and male dominated nature of (UN) security present distinct challenges to the exercise of leadership?
Things have obviously changed. But let me go back 20 years. I am certainly one of the pioneers amongst the female leadership in the new UNDSS before its integration in 2005. I found myself in 2002 in UNSECOORD – with no biases involved – in a western military male dominated environment. Everything was not me; I was not Western. I am a brown woman, a police officer, coming from India. Professionally, gender-wise, nationality-wise, I was something totally unexpected.
But, on the other hand, I was lucky to start my professional journey in Indonesia. In the first years, I had challenges [with] those I encountered, both verbal and nonverbal. There was concern, you know, whether this woman would be able to cope with her assignment and whether it is possible for her to survive. However, there were equally empowering mentors – some senior women and men were keeping watch from distance. I think that this has helped tremendously. I must note that the people who were having concerns about me also mentored me and enhanced me in the skills required to transit from police to UN international security. For instance, my first supervisor was British, and his wife was Irish. We became friends outside work which helped me a lot to adjust. I would say that the perseverance in the initial years to learn and de-learn was very important.
When I’m talking to other UN staff members, men or women, they all have periods of adjustment in the first two to three years. Everyone is met with different transitional challenges in one way or the other in their careers. I think that now, after 20 years of my journey, it’s much easier for me to sit at the director level and say these things. I was in the right place at the right time, I would say, and I took opportunities to learn. And I never said ‘no’ to the challenges. My family, husband and son always supported me. That’s why you see me in South Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. I think I have been lucky to get good mentors throughout my career. But over the two decades, I see positive developments in the UN. There is much more diversity in the field now than back when I joined the UNDSS. Many more women are now in the field and in the headquarters in UNDSS. A lot of questions and challenges still need to be answered such as work-life balance. Today, I believe, also it has become to some extent easier for women, because of the UN gender parity strategy and policy changes that [the] present Secretary-General has brought in. Even though it was much more challenging for women to enter the workforce and continue a few decades ago, I think we are moving into the right direction.
Does the field of (UN) security require specific leadership skills set, and/or does it require emphasis on particular dimensions of leadership?
The UN security profession has also undergone an extraordinary evolution – shaped by events – internal and external. The 2003 attack on the UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad is still in everyone’s mind and had huge implications on UN’s view on security. The blast resulted in the death of 22 people, including the then Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), Sergio Vieira de Mello. Recent event[s] like the COVID-19 pandemic shaped further alternate ways of doing business. So, the skillsets required for the security profession have become more multi-faced.
I believe that certain feminine qualities like collaboration, assimilation and integration have helped me and many other women to establish and thrive ourselves at UNDSS.
While security staff members do not necessarily come from the police or military services, we transition them into their new roles. Although international security management is a field in itself, new staff can utilise their diverse education, skills, and training, and extrapolate some relevant qualities for becoming a full-fledged international security leader. There was a requirement in early years That UNDSS staff should have police or military background, but this is not the case anymore. [The] majority of police officers, or related professionals, whether men or women, independent from their country of origin, are doing better in [the] UNDSS because we are constantly working with the society and have a lot more flexibility. Having staff with a variety of skills and backgrounds is what makes us as a team successful in handling different demands on the ground, especially in Peacekeeping and Political Missions. As a UNDSS leader, in addition to oneself having specific skills or specific dimensions of leadership, it is also equally important to have qualities to develop a collaboration between [the] variety of skills and expertise.
As a leader in the security field, I may not have all the skills. However, my special investigations staff member knows how to investigate; our military colleagues know much more about weapons and security and our physical security expert knows how to ensure the physical security of staff. And my analysts bring in the analysis of political security. We all get together, under the guidance of UN leadership, wherever it is required.
Although security sounds like a very drab and dry subject, I think there is [an] ‘Art of Leadership’ involved. And once you start acquiring or becoming expert in those tunes, you can really surf on those waves, and it becomes art.
What are your references and sources of inspiration (people, books, etc) for leadership that you turn to in situations of crisis or professional turbulence?
Most importantly: Regular rest and recovery after managing a crisis. When I am in the middle of crisis management, I put a lot of trust in my team, and they energise me in turn. The most important part is to recover after managing a crisis. If I do not consciously give myself enough time to recover – both mentally and physically, I might deplete myself from handling future crisis or responsibility.
It is very simple. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others, and that is an ultimate security risk for everyone.
I find that along with physical wellbeing and exercise, spiritual recovery is important. And this might be as simple as travelling to a new place. This is true for all levels of leadership. In addition, I often turn to my friends who I met throughout my career and to my family for support. Lately I have been recording my field experiences and impressions, some are very sensitive, hence they will for the time being, remain personal. Once I retire, I might seek approval to turn them into transcripts.
You worked as a police officer prior to your career at the UN, what would be your one piece of advice for young women seeking to pursue a career in the security sector?
My message for young women who want to pursue a career in international security: This is the field where you can make the most impact with your inherent feminine attributes and skills. Now is the right time for taking the opportunities provided by [the] UN gender parity policies!