Bintou Keita is the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). As part of the Foundation’s new blog series, The Art of Leadership, we sat down with Bintou to discuss UN leadership, the importance of the UN Charter, and the essential traits of everyday UN leadership in complex settings.
Bintou, you’ve worked for the United Nations since 1989 and currently hold an important leadership position. When you think about the concept of leadership in the UN, what comes to your mind?
What comes to mind first is the question: Are we, the UN, still relevant to global leadership? There is an expectation that the UN is a global leader, one who is expected to set international norms and standards, to walk the talk in terms of values. That’s because we are accountable to ‘we the peoples’ according to the UN Charter.
Today, I believe the UN needs to evolve its approach to carrying out intergovernmental work, given the increasing polarities and interconnectivity. Information, particularly on social media, is going much faster than we are able to react. To uphold accountability, therefore, the UN’s connections to stakeholders themselves must improve.
With the increased number of movements stemming from different organisations and facets of society – young people, women, civil society organisations and other groups – the UN has to be able to connect with these groups outside established formal UN channels and other intergovernmental spaces. UN leadership has to reinvent itself to adapt to the current era.
Most of the time when we discuss leadership, we look at the UN’s interventions at different stages and levels of operation. But we cannot forget that it is really about leading people, both within the organisation and outside the organisation. In terms of communication, particularly with regards to setting norms and values, that means finding language that resonates with normal people rather than catering just to policy- and decision-makers, and to Member States in general.
It sounds like such a shift would require UN leaders to move outside their comfort zones, to look beyond the usual suspects and means of engagement. What will it take for individuals to do that?
It all boils down to managing people and creating an environment where everyone is valued as their own person. It requires every UN employee to walk the talk with the Sustainable Development Goals. If we are always speaking to the same folks, the same mindsets and patterns and thoughts about how to solve global problems will persist. If we want the conceptual framework to change, we need to be courageous enough to challenge the status quo. We see this happening in the business sphere already and the UN needs to catch up.
In practical terms, getting out of our comfort zone means breaking militaristic hierarchies and unnecessary protocols. The UN is for inclusivity and participation among its Member States. If we are really committed to leaving no one behind, why do we uphold rigid and formal structures and practices internally? The way the UN works today, young professionals rarely have the opportunity to speak, let alone to contribute with their ideas, which are often filtered through the ranks of seniority. Ideas tend to get watered down and lose transformative impact as they move up the chain.
We need to recognise the diversity of talents within our teams at all levels. Our role as leaders is to unleash the talents of each individual member and find out how these fit together so that the UN can reach its full potential.
Doing this also requires us to acknowledge that we cannot do it all – we need others to complement our skills and knowledge, and we need to make space for contributions.
In your view, what incentives are in place to encourage UN leaders to step outside their comfort zones? Do the incentives differ depending on where one sits in the organisation?
Much depends on individuals’ personalities and characteristics. There are things that can be learnt and others which are innate. I believe that you can impact change at any level or part of the organisation. However, incentives definitely vary depending on where you sit. For instance, I feel that I had more space for innovative decision-making when I was a P4 and P5 in the field than at higher grades, and in particular at Headquarters. As you move up the ladder, the space for creativity decreases somewhat because you become more visible, more vulnerable to criticism.
In the field, there are more opportunities to challenge existing approaches and find spaces to improve how we best support host countries. The greatest incentive, for me, is feedback from the communities we serve that the UN is doing a good job.
You have worked in many complex workplaces, such as DRC, Sudan, Burundi. What leadership traits do you think are essential in complex situations, including conflict-affected and post-conflict contexts, and how do you manage competing pressures and potential trade-offs?
On principles and values, I do not budge.
The minute you do, you lose your authenticity and your credibility, which is unacceptable. The Charter says that ‘international civil servants must behave according to the UN’s values and principles at all times’. While the demands of and practices required by each context differ, the essential traits of everyday UN leadership in complex settings relate to core values and behaviours. That includes the way we interact with communities and respond to pressures exerted by different actors.
As a UN leader, you need to respect that there are times when you have to agree to disagree in order to uphold your responsibilities. For instance, in order to secure the information needed to understand the conflict dynamics and support prevention through good offices, one needs to be able to build a rapport with all the major players, including controversial figures and groups.
How can UN leaders manage these pressures and evaluate trade-offs when under pressure? What are your primary reference points and sources of inspiration when facing difficult decisions?
From the day I entered the UN, I have used the Charter as my primary reference point.
Sometimes you need to remind yourself of the guiding principles and why this organisation was established. I also try to maintain an appreciation for the realities of public service, namely that if someone does not like the stance I am taking, I could be dismissed. I prefer to engage authentically and stand up for what’s right – even at a very high personal risk – than to abandon the UN’s values and principles.
Taking or signing the Oath of Office has, unfortunately, become something of a bureaucratic exercise. I was privileged to have had to sign it in the presence of leaders who took it very seriously and infused me with the gravity of the commitment I was making. To this day, I have a very strong connection to that Oath, and it gives me the energy required for my work.
You’ve spoken a lot about challenging existing power structures, and breaking down hierarchies and mindsets that reduce representation and participation. Does the concept of feminist leadership speak to you?
An uncle once told me, ‘You are behaving like a man, but you are in the body of a woman’. It was an unsolicited comment and I often reflect on what he meant. It’s clear that my role, my authority, did not fit his idea of what a woman was. In the same vein, the common belief that women are peaceful is also flawed: I’ve heard women push for war and seen them participate in violence.
I hesitate to apply labels to my beliefs or to promote specific ideologies, particularly when they might be perceived as putting one group in conflict with another. Some hear ‘feminist leadership’ and think it means that women need to take over. In a debate on gender parity, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed once said, ‘Have you ever seen a plane flying with only one wing?’ The point is that we need to find a balance, and a way of including everyone according to their rights and abilities. Humanity is diverse and each individual has unique abilities. Leaders should focus on identifying commonalities, including shared values, that enable us to work together to make the world a better place.
You have worked on both sides of 1st Avenue, for the Secretariat and for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as well as in many HQs and field posts. How has your mobility shaped your leadership style? To what extent do you think that mobility is important when it comes to achieving leadership effectiveness at the UN?
Mobility is really an important factor within and across organisations, missions, fields and functions. From peacekeeping to protection or public health, the more perspectives you are exposed to, the better you understand the complexity of the context. My mobility has allowed me to relate to different views and experiences, and to leverage different types of competencies and skills.
My dream is that during his second mandate, Secretary-General António Guterres can ensure mobility and rotation at all levels, which would help ensure that the UN remains relevant. It would make a huge difference in overcoming divides like the ‘blue UN’ versus the ‘black UN’; the humanitarians versus the peacekeepers.
Many of our divisions are self-imagined and self-perpetuating. For instance, in areas of DRC where the security situation has deteriorated and humanitarian entities can no longer visit to provide services to internally displaced persons, I suggested that other parts of the mission do so. My proposal was not well met by colleagues. In my mind, it is very simple: Is it more important to uphold our silos or to meet our humanitarian mandate so that people don’t starve?
Increased mobility would help us understand the capacities of other agencies and departments, so that we can speak to each other with mutual respect and understand how to support each other in the delivery of our mandates. I think that broader perspective would help us to drive more meaningful transformation in the lives of the people we serve.
Sometimes we need to remind people to bring it back to the basics, to shed their theology and find solutions. It also comes down to language. We need to keep it simple and be able to say, ‘These people are dying. What are we going to do?’
UN peacekeeping in the DRC is particularly significant for our Foundation: This year marks the 60th anniversary of Dag Hammarskjöld’s death in Ndola en route to negotiate a ceasefire. What aspects of Dag Hammarskjöld’s life and legacy resonate for you? What is their significance for UN leadership in today’s world?
It is both professional and personal. Some time ago, I met with the President of the National Assembly to discuss the transition of MONUSCO at some point in the future and how we should conceptualise that shift. The first thing he said was that the sacrifice that has been made by the UN in the DRC, starting with the sacrifice made by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, is something for which [the Congolese people] will forever be grateful. He did not say this to please me. He was expressing a deep, very authentic gratitude.
When I was in New York, I was offered a book on Hammarskjöld’s legacy. Reading it made me reflect on how we deal with all the trauma the UN witnesses and deals with, while the organisation itself may also be suffering from what is increasingly recognised as organisational trauma. What has been the long-term impact of the loss of such a great leader under still unclear and quite dramatic circumstances? How may we still today be influenced by those events without perhaps being aware of it? I am further and closely reminded of a meeting I witnessed in Sudan. There, a senior official became so triggered by the mention of a Peace Agreement that his body contorted, and I could see him shivering with emotion. Many of the other participants experienced the same phenomenon at the same time. Without verbally communicating any pain, anger or fear, I watched them exhibit collective PTSD. All I could think of in that moment was, ‘how do I bring these people back to the present? Where do we go from here?’ This brings up the issue of collective trauma and how it is passed down through the generations by behaviours that were appropriate reactions to trauma but no longer serve. We know today from modern science that trauma can also be inherited. For me, to understand these phenomena and connections is a dimension of leadership. If we do not look to what drives human behaviour, we may not be able to bring together all the pieces necessary to enable sustainable and peaceful co-existence of all.
As UN leaders, we need to do a better job of connecting to our stakeholders emotionally, both within and outside the organisation. The UN lost the head of its family in 1961. How did the organisation deal with the loss of Hammarskjöld? Has it grieved properly?
I think that Hammarskjöld’s passing represents something that we haven’t yet fully processed. There is lingering trauma that we need to understand and integrate in order to move forward, perhaps just as with many other lingering and unrecognised traumas related to the work of the UN.
Bintou Keita is the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). She brings to the position more than 30 years of experience in peace, security, development, humanitarian and human rights, working in conflict and post-conflict environments. Since January 2019, she has been serving as the Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and of Peace Operations, and had served as the Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations from November 2017 to December 2018. Between 2015 and 2017, Ms. Keita served the UN as Deputy Joint Special Representative for the African Union–United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). Prior to this, she led UN efforts to fight the Ebola Virus Disease as the Ebola Crisis Manager for Sierra Leone between February and November 2015. In addition, from 2007 to 2010, she served as Deputy Executive Representative of the Secretary-General for the UN Integrated Office in Burundi.
Ms. Keita joined the UN in 1989, serving in several senior management and leadership functions with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Chad, the Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Cape Verde, Rwanda, Burundi and at Headquarters. She holds a master’s degree in social economy from the University of Paris II, France, and a postgraduate degree in business administration and management from the University of Paris IX, France.