Leadership not by title: An interview with Kanni Wignaraja

“I have been truly fortunate to have worked with amazing women leaders when I first joined UNDP at a very young age.”

Kanni WignarajaKanni Wignaraja is UNDP’s Assistant Secretary-General and the Director of its Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific. She has worked in various field positions, as well as at UNDP’s Headquarters in New York.

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 Kanni to discuss her views on UN leadership. Take a fresh look.


When you think about UN leadership, what immediately comes to mind?

I identify the best of UN leadership with people who can speak to ideas that make things better for people who need us most, and then act on them. For me, UN leadership is about standing up for what we believe in and trying to change the world, even if in very small ways, for the better. No matter where you come from, your first instinct is to improve people’s lives.

What is unique about UN leadership, as distinct from leadership more generally, or in other ‘industries’ and organisations?

Clearly our values. The UN Charter is our DNA, and it is this ‘belief system’ that drives us towards that bigger purpose. ‘Doing no harm’ is not enough. When you join the UN, you join this common belief system no matter where you come from, and the identities you carried with you.

What does it mean to be a UN leader to you? What specific traits do you think a UN leader needs today?

First, a leader is not just defined by a title. Everyone can be a leader in their own way. A key trait of UN leadership to me is to have courage and to be brave when it comes to standing up for what you believe in and to stand up for others, even when their opinions differ, but where they need you on their side.

A leader must have empathy, at an individual level, and at a larger social level. A good leader in the UN, therefore, works for the greater public good. And keeps trying, even when one gets blocked, as one often does along the way.

I also think a true leader is deeply knowledgeable and is moved by his/her area of expertise and has the capability to convey that. It helps to connect, when people see that you know and that you care. I have always been inspired by such leaders. You connect immediately to someone who is persuasive, knows the evidence and can also speak from the heart, rather than those who read out a prepared statement.

This conversation reminds me of an article from the Harvard Business Review, ‘In Praise of the Incomplete Leader’. It exposes the myth that any single leader needs to be complete, flawless and have everything figured out. It carries an important message: good leaders recognise that they are incomplete. And hence cultivate and bring together others who are unlike them, to work together to make a more ‘complete’ team.

Only when we as leaders, no matter at what level, come to see ourselves as incomplete – as having both strengths and weaknesses – will we be able to make up for our missing skills by relying on others. A leader does well not to recruit people who are just like herself, but on the contrary, a good leader surrounds herself with people who are different and complement the team. It’s interesting to look around the UN teams today, to see which ones look this way.

I have been truly fortunate to have worked with amazing women leaders when I first joined UNDP at a very young age. Early on, my then Executive Director decided that I should lead a tough country mission. The UN Representative in the country called to complain that such a young person had been sent to do the job. My Director stood by her decision, and by me, and was clear in her support. I have always remembered this and try and do the same for young colleagues as they begin their journeys. Role models have been key.


In May 2020, having just been appointed UN Assistant Secretary-General, Kanni Wignaraja wrote a post for our blog on how COVID-19 initiated a rough but revealing leadership induction.


Can you give us examples of extraordinary UN leadership that you have witnessed – leadership that went beyond good management?

A great example of the UN showing strong leadership, at the individual level and as a whole, was in the early response to the AIDS crisis. No one had the full science at the very beginning. No one knew exactly what was going on, and how great the challenge was going to be. Many in the UN were concerned about getting too involved and said leave it to others. And yet, the Head of my UNDP team at the time said we had to jump in and do what we can to help families and communities already devastated by this epidemic. She involved us in the decisions on who wanted to get involved and understood those who did not. And she led this team effort from the front. She was fearless, driven by trying to make even a small difference to ease the suffering we could see around us (in Southern and Eastern Africa, where we were). We were also driven by a sense of justice. She told me that if you didn’t believe in a sense of justice, one should not work for the UN. This stuck with me.

Decades ago, there was a small scientific community at the UN and outside who worked together and studied the very real threats of climate change. Nobody wanted to believe them, but they believed that it was an issue that needed the world’s attention. They kept pushing the agenda, calling for the UN and its members to take climate change seriously. It has taken such a long time to get the world to listen. But they were tireless and showed persistence in the face of daunting resistance – these are extraordinary leadership traits.

I think this can also be said for those working with the Ebola crisis. Or before that with SARS, during and after wars and disasters, and in so many lesser-known difficult situations. It’s also what it takes to stand for the rights of marginalised groups. UN colleagues have always been there, working in trying conditions, and doing their best to make things even just a bit better for those hit hardest. In my book, these are true UN leaders.

What concrete measures could be taken to strengthen the practice of leadership at the UN and/or to promote leadership at the UN?

I think we need to be better in expressing a sense of collective or team leadership. And to value it more, and hence intentionally recognise and cultivate such traits. It is often done by rewarding these leaders and learning from them. I don’t think we do it enough.

Making sure we protect a balance – of being happy and safe at work and outside – and doing so for ourselves and our teams. This is also a practice of good leadership that could be promoted more. Good leaders care about their teams, beyond being a high-performing workforce.

We could do with more self-reflection on our leadership style and skills. That means carving out some time and space to have the conversations. Being able to listen is a great trait – listening to young staff members and taking in their ideas and concerns; and also absorbing the wisdom of the older colleagues and understanding what they know. It helps to stop and ask, ‘what can I do to create more open spaces to discuss and to energise those around me with these shared values that have kept me motivated all these years?’, so we don’t lose sight of them along the way.

I think we may just get more from these exchanges than sitting through traditional leadership training and online lectures.

Kanni Wignaraja is Assistant Secretary-General of UNDP, and the Director of its Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific. She served as Acting Assistant Administrator and Director of the UNDP Bureau for Management Services, and as Special Adviser to the UNDP Administrator, after working as Director of the UN Development Operations Coordination Office (DOCO) from 2014 to 2018. Kanni was interviewed in her personal capacity. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the UN.

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.

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