Leadership and loneliness – An interview with Dominik Bartsch

“A good leader is one who finds and fosters a unity of purpose that ties together the team, that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

Dominik Bartsch at the Za’atari refugee camp in December 2020. Photograph courtesy of UNHCR Jordan.Dominik Bartsch is the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan. As part of the Foundation’s new blog series, The Art of Leadership, last month we sat down with Dominik to discuss the traits and practices of UN leadership, building resilience during a pandemic and how Dag Hammarsköld’s legacy shaped him as a person.

Dominik, you’ve worked for the United Nations for more than 30 years now, and you currently hold an important leadership position as a UNHCR representative. When you think about the concept of leadership in the UN what comes to mind?

The first thing that comes to mind is diversity. Diversity is one strength that the UN has that other employers don’t value in the same way. Yes, you have the private sector with a diverse working structure, but I believe nobody does diversity like we do. It’s a strength that helps us to overcome our cultural instincts and foster greater connections. Diversity also strengthens our ability to lead. It creates a value-driven fabric in a team that enables us to work in various country contexts. Diversity in leadership is a strength. It keeps us flexible and culturally and mentally open.

The second thing is probably ‘unity of purpose’. A good leader is one who finds and fosters a unity of purpose that ties together the team, that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Unity of purpose is a great motivator and is quite central for the UN at large.

Coming back to that point about the role of a leader in defining ‘unity of purpose’. What specific traits do you think a UN leader needs today?

I think there is an important distinction between managers and leaders. When we begin our UN careers, we generally start out as specialists. Through mobility within the system and over time, we take on roles that require us to become generalists and, progressively, we assume more managerial functions with greater accountability, control and management of resources. Some of this is standard career progression. In the transition from management to leadership, however, we need to do more than merely adhere to and implement management processes. We need to take on and address situations that go beyond what I would call the ‘blueprint’. You need to transcend yourself.

This requires soft leadership skills, which often need to be nurtured and developed. It also requires building one’s own self-confidence. To know it’s okay to rely on one’s own emotional intelligence; to rely on others; to learn to trust one’s ability to listen and make informed decisions. These skills come with maturity, and only after having been tested.

I believe these leadership skills are not acquired in your 20s because they develop throughout one’s career. Some leadership skills are simply ‘late bloomers’. They come with experience. Leaders are built over time.

I will give you an example. While I was Head of Operations at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, there was a period when UNHCR could not operate in the camp due to security concerns. We had to balance the need to keep staff safe with the humanitarian imperative to supply water and food and keep health clinics open. So, what do you do?

Twenty-five years ago, I would have probably applied my textbook management skills, meaning a way for UNHCR and partners to get in and out, but at that later stage in my career, I saw the opportunities inherent in this leadership challenge: It was a chance to rethink our business model. As a team, we asked ourselves: did UNHCR and its partners in non-governmental organisations need to be driving into the camp every day to provide services, or could existing community structures provide these essential services instead?

And so, collectively as a UNHCR team, we started empowering the people UNHCR was serving to deliver those essential services. Combined, the wisdom of this experience and the challenge at hand provided an impetus to find a creative solution that went beyond solving a logistical issue.

Dominik Bartsch at the Za’atari refugee camp in December 2020. Photograph courtesy of UNHCR Jordan.

Dominik Bartsch visits the community centre at the Za’atari refugee camp in December 2020. Photograph courtesy of UNHCR Jordan.

You point to leadership challenges that formed you as a leader. What challenges or opportunities, in your point of view, are unique to the humanitarian sector as opposed to the development or security fields?

I am a trained development economist, and I started my career as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO) in the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). It was a very intellectually stimulating environment and I saw it as an opportunity to test economic models and theories in practice. But one or two years into the JPO programme, I realised that I could not really pin down whose lives I had touched through my work. Working for UNHCR changed this: I could see a direct connection between my role and people in need. That immediate and direct accountability of UNHCR towards people of concern provides a kind of special link that doesn’t always exist (and isn’t always fully appreciated) in other parts of the UN system.

For humanitarian leaders like us, there is a tension and a need to balance addressing immediate needs and collaborating with the rest of the UN family. Humanitarian actors are emergency responders. In many ways, they are programmed to ‘go it alone’, which can have consequences for other UN agencies and programmes. Humanitarian leaders need to manage that tension.

I think we see an interesting trend in the reinvigorated Resident Coordinator (RC) system. There is a move from soft coordination to a more directive coordination. While the RCs cannot formally instruct UN Country Teams, we are one step closer to a system that fosters coherent leadership. The RCs keeps the UN family together while creating space and authority for agency heads to exercise leadership in managing their respective mandates and in protecting humanitarian space. I think this system holds great promise for the future.

Turning to you, and to your staff situation at the moment. How has COVID-19 affected the special link between UNHCR staff and the people UNHCR was serving and how has this impacted what’s required of you as a leader?

The first phase of the pandemic was very disruptive, but we recovered quickly. We stayed and delivered. There was no way to stop our activities. We told ourselves: no matter how bad this is and how severe the lockdown will be, we simply have to continue.

I would compare it to other disruptions, like a major, unforeseen refugee influx. The pandemic brought back an attitude you develop during a crisis: the ‘Yes we can’, ‘We must figure it out’ attitude. I mean, you do not have an alternative. For the UNHCR team in Jordan, it triggered a flurry of creativity and innovation. It empowered staff within my team to break the mould and find new solutions.

I will give you a concrete example. As you can imagine, registration at a refugee camp draws huge crowds standing close together, which obviously couldn’t continue. So, my colleagues set up remote renewal procedures to ensure this critical service could be continued during the lockdown. In terms of adjusting to our staff presence, line managers would make the calls themselves: who works remotely, who doesn’t, what to do. Because they know their staff best. This allowed UNHCR to be flexible and adapt as the situation changed. Line managers really stepped up. It made us stronger, more responsive, and more resilient.

And we see this same resilience among the refugees themselves. Long before social distancing was advised, when we still thought that the disease was being transmitted through physical contact, the refugees were drawing circles on the ground to ensure social distancing. Perhaps the trauma they endured as refugees, enabled them to accurately assess the risks, to manage the COVID-19 crisis in their own space in ways that others hadn’t yet thought to do. The pandemic turned them into crisis managers and resilience builders.

Dominik Bartsch stands next to a portrait of Dag Hammarskjöld by Lyad Fanan, a Syrian artist currently living in the Za’atari refugee camp. Photograph courtesy of Dominik Bartsch.

Dominik Bartsch stands next to a portrait of Dag Hammarskjöld by Lyad Fanan, a Syrian artist currently living in the Za’atari refugee camp. Photograph courtesy of Dominik Bartsch.

Earlier this year you commissioned Lyad Fanan, a Syrian artist currently living in the Za’atari refugee camp, to paint a portrait of Dag Hammarskjöld. What is your personal connection to Hammarskjöld? Is there anything you’ve learned from his leadership that you apply yourself?

My earliest connection to Dag Hammarskjold is from the early 1990s, when I worked as a UNHCR field officer in Zambia. I was commuting every week by car to Meheba refugee settlement and Ndola – the place where the crash that killed Hammarskjöld and 15 others occurred – was at the halfway point on that long journey, like a checkpoint of sorts. Passing the memorial in Ndola made me wonder: What happened here? Why did a UN Secretary-General die in this place? Who was he?

You must understand that I was young. This was early in my career. I was forging my identity as an international civil servant at that time. Much later, in 2005, while working in the Secretary-General’s office, my interest in history was rekindled and I was also collecting first editions. That’s when I got hold of Markings. Unlike other books by political leaders, this is not a politician’s book – quite the contrary, it is a collection of very personal reflections.

Reading Markings, I realised that Hammarskjöld must have experienced loneliness as a leader. It felt as if he didn’t have a kindred spirit to speak with, or enough people around him whom he trusted enough to help him work through the complex dilemmas he faced. So, he created a space for reflection and took time to listen to himself. Reading and experiencing his reflections reminded me that being a leader is not just about being a ‘doer’, but about having a mature relationship with oneself.

The writing in Markings has some sad undercurrents. But there are also strong expressions of Hammarskjöld’s unwavering faith which was perhaps not unusual in those times but is definitely rare in today’s context. I found it fascinating that Hammarskjöld had no equivocations: He knew what he believed in and what he stood for.

But coming back to the painting: There is a thriving artist community in Za’atari camp here in Jordan. I gave Syrian artist Lyad Fanan a picture of Hammarskjold, and the painting is how he chose to represent that image. It is very funky. Modern. Fresh. It is kind of a contradiction in itself, don’t you think?

Talking about loneliness, do you feel sometimes lonely as a leader?

Yes, there can be a sense of loneliness in leadership when you are faced with very difficult decisions, when there may be a need to compromise on one principle to protect another. These situations don’t arise often, but they are the type of dilemmas on which you cannot easily consult with your team, because the team is looking for clear directions.

I think what makes it even more complicated is that we, as humanitarians, are to some extent the UN’s vagabonds. On average I have spent around three years in each of my postings, which doesn’t make it easy to build up deep friendships. My school friends back home have it easier, on that count. They stayed and their friendships grew. They trust each other, they have each other. That’s the downside of global mobility.

The upside, by contrast, is that you become very good at understanding people and identifying their strengths. You learn to be more tolerant and accepting because you work with so many people, from diverse cultural backgrounds. It is a privileged position and a definite asset in leadership.

Dominik Bartsch at the Za’atari refugee camp in December 2020. Photograph courtesy of UNHCR Jordan.

Dominik Bartsch visits the community centre at the Za’atari refugee camp in December 2020. Photograph courtesy of UNHCR Jordan.

Hammarskjold had a central role in shaping the concept of the international civil servant at the UN. Looking back at your career at the UN, what measures, in your view, could be taken to strengthen the international civil service (ICS) and UN leadership?

I think there are some good current efforts. Look at the UN development system for example. The RC assessment process is about testing for leadership aptitude (as opposed to management skills) and therefore amounts to a quantum leap in terms of improving leadership in the ICS. It’s an important adaptation that would have not been possible 15, 20 years ago. At the same time, it does represent a Western (perhaps even North American) approach to selecting leaders, which could undermine the universality of the ICS.

There are also very different cultures within the ICS, between the Secretariat and UN funds, agencies and programmes. We all have different styles of communication and managing information. Within the UNHCR, staff instinctively share information because it is such a key prerequisite to deliver humanitarian assistance.

There are many mutations or variants of the ICS, according to the culture of the specific agency or programme. So, in terms of how to strengthen the ICS, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

That being said, I have noticed that the values and identity of life-long UN employees tend to be more representative of the UN than of their country of origin. The UN identity predominates. Accomplished UN leaders clearly and visibly represent UN values.

I think the ICS has evolved a lot in the past 60 years. It epitomises a culture and a value system that is not always recognized as such. The average New Yorker looks at the UN and its staff as the cause of traffic jams during the General Assembly and not necessarily as a global force for peace and security. The desperate Congolese villager looks to the UN for protection and lifesaving assistance and doesn’t reflect on the values of the UN Charter. As civil servants across the UN we all operate under the same blue flag but the perception from the outside rarely captures the totality of what we do.

In my view, there is a disconnect between what the ICS represents and how it is understood. That dissonance is important to understanding the risk exposure of UN personnel, particularly in crisis situations. Forty years ago, travelling under the UN flag or carrying a UN identification afforded you a certain measure of protection. Today it’s more likely to mark us as a target. The gap between what the UN stands for and how it is understood appears to be getting wider.

Dominik Bartsch took up his assignment as UNHCR Representative to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in February 2020, having previously served as UNHCR Representative to Germany. In his 30 years with the United Nations, Dominik has worked in major humanitarian emergencies and refugee operations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Zambia, Kenya and India. His very first UN assignment was as Programme Officer with UNDP/UNIDO in Trinidad and Tobago in 1991/92. He also served in senior management positions at UNHCR HQ in Geneva, and the UN HQ in New York. In 2005, Dominik was seconded to the Department for Peacekeeping Operations and was subsequently deployed to the office of the Secretary-General, tasked with the opening of the Peacebuilding Support Office, and the setting up of the Peacebuilding Fund. During 2012/13, he was the UNHCR Head of Operations in Dadaab, Kenya, then the largest refugee camp in the world, and was thereafter appointed as the organisation’s Chief of Mission to India and was dispatched as the United Nations Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator to Iraq in 2015. Trained as a development economist, Dominik holds an MA in Development Studies from the University of East Anglia in the UK and an undergraduate degree in public administration from the University of Konstanz in Germany. He is married with two adult sons.

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström By Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström used to work as Programme Manager at the Foundation, covering the financing, form and functions of the UN development system, and UN leadership.

Kate Sullivan By Kate Sullivan

Kate Sullivan supported the Foundation’s programmatic work with external relations and strategic planning from 2020-2022. Before joining the Foundation, Kate held positions at the Global Challenges Foundation, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Global Partnership Alliance, the U.S. Peace Corps and United Technologies Corporation. She holds a Master in Public Administration from the George Washington University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan. Kate is a Paul Harris Fellow (Rotary) and a member of the three-time world champion Rönninge Show Chorus.