Mobility and leadership – An interview with Peter de Clercq

Can the UN have one without the other?

Peter de Clercq has worked with the United Nation and in the diplomatic field for 35 years at various duty stations in peacekeeping, political affairs, development and humanitarian operations. He retired from his regular UN career in 2019 at the Assistant Secretary-General level.

As part of the Foundation’s new blog series, The Art of Leadership, last month we sat down with Peter to discuss the importance of mobility for effective and meaningful UN leadership.


In his 2018 report ‘Shifting the management paradigm in the United Nations: implementing a new management architecture for improved effectiveness and strengthened accountability’, the UN Secretary-General proposed changes to the UN management model to address existing shortcomings in management culture and leadership.

As someone who has spent most of your UN career in the field, in high-risk conflict situations, what for you are the essential attributes of successful leadership?

If there is something that many years in the field has taught me, it is that being the most senior in the room doesn’t always mean being the smartest.

I’m being only partially facetious, because this recognition, or acceptance, is needed for many other important leadership qualities. It forces one for example to listen, solicit criticism and avoid echo chambers. Given the nature of our work, and its intensity, especially in conflict areas, it is sometimes easy or tempting to shut off other inconvenient voices, to protect yourself. To be open, one must therefore be in the trenches collectively. One cannot claim to exercise leadership just because of a grade level – it has to be earned. So, you should for example never expect or demand that others take risks you wouldn’t take yourself.

I also think loyalty is important. You need to earn it, as it does not come automatically. Your team is your sounding board; to gain the loyalty of your team, you need to admit to your own mistakes. So, you must ‘weaponise’ the importance of your team and exercise modesty.

Also, the more senior you become, the easier it is to be led by ego. But real leadership means focusing on a specific question: what do you, and/or your team, want to leave behind? This question guides our actions and our behaviours. How much difference have you made for the average citizen in the place where you worked? Such an approach leaves little place for ego.

Finally, and I think this is often overlooked, true leadership is also exercised by knowing when to stop, when to disengage and when to pass the baton to others. This requires humility because it means that no one is indispensable. In the field, and in conflict situations in particular, it is very hard, because the stakes are so high, and you become so involved and attached to your work.

One proposal in the 2018 report was to encourage staff mobility both within and outside the UN. This would involve allowing staff to develop key managerial and leadership behaviours, with the possibility of returning to their original positions, for the benefit of the organisation.

From your point of view, are there essential leadership qualities that can only be developed and exposed in the field, or which are greatly enabled by experience in the field?

I don’t necessarily see a distinction between UN Headquarters and field leadership in those terms, but it is true that field contexts shed a particular – and perhaps more intense – light on some of the attributes we just discussed.

For example, you could argue the focus on what we are leaving behind is also essential for work at Headquarters. But perhaps its relevance is more vivid, or tangible in the field.

What is more important, I think, is having a ‘field-oriented’ mindset, no matter where you are located for the UN, whether it be New York, Geneva or Mogadishu.

This mindset entails a willingness to take risks and having the ability to see things from a local perspective. Overall, it requires an attitude that pays more attention to the one reason why things could work than the ten reasons why they would not work.

In the field, it takes time until you reach cruising altitude and get up to speed. And you need to be aware that you might fail despite your best intentions. You need to avoid templates and take the time to comprehend the situation on the ground and understand what you are actually dealing with.

This brings us to another element of field-minded leadership, which relates to national staff. We must cultivate their knowledge, leadership potential and contributions. And as leaders in the field, we must engage with them a lot more.

Of course, we know some of the risks – both to national staff and to the UN – but that engagement is part of what I referred to earlier when we spoke about openness and new perspectives.

The Secretary-General’s 2020 report, ‘New approach to staff mobility: building an agile Organization by providing opportunities for on-the-job learning and skills development’, presents the principles, rules and incentives that the Secretariat will gradually implement – should the report be approved by the 5th Committee – in support of staff mobility.

The report makes a compelling case for mobility: in an interconnected world, where health developments have peace and security implications, and where political realities, humanitarian imperatives and human rights obligations so often mix and clash, it is essential for UN staff to be exposed to and acquire experience in many diverse settings and agendas.

Is mobility important to being an effective leader for the UN?

It is essential, if only to cultivate the openness, humility and recognition that we don’t know it all – that there is always more to discover as each new function and new place is a new opportunity to learn. Most of all, there is no room for cynicism and jumping to early conclusions; every new situation deserves to be considered on its own merits.

But it’s important to stress that mobility is not an end in itself. It is more of an enabler. What matters more is the mindset we just talked about.

Some people may move frequently but yet refuse to be open to new perspectives. You must want to move from post to post, from location to location, and exploit that mobility to enrich and broaden your UN identity, and build on each experience. Otherwise, what is the point?

Photo: UN Photo

A technician fixes electricity cables at the Beco Power Generation Plant in Mogadishu, which provides electricity to the Banaadir region, during a visit by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia, Michael Keating, in April 2018. Credit: UN Photo.

The Secretary-General argues that, if the UN is to stay relevant in a complex and fast-moving world, a significant portion of its staff needs to move often, across duty stations, and between mandates and functions. The report also recognises that not all staff need to move, and that not all post holders should rotate. The UN includes many functions for which ‘permanency’ is in fact preferable.

So, what kind of mobility do we need and why?

The kind of mobility we need is not only vertical but also horizontal. And in fact, it should be mobility in all of its dimensions: between Headquarters and the field of course, but also between agencies, between Secretariat entities and agencies, and between different functions, across the four pillars of the UN.

Simply put, we need smart and better managed mobility.

This is essential if we are going to overcome what I think is one of the greatest obstacles to effective leadership and effective operations in the field: the mistrust between the Secretariat and the UN agencies.

There are turf battles that are very detrimental and frankly outdated. For example, no one has a monopoly on sound political analysis. Most agencies, and in particular the development agencies, work on governance-related issues. They have great insights into a country’s political situation and dynamics, which can at times be ignored or under-used by missions.

More generally, both sides could do much more to recognise and use the skills, competences and knowledge that are available across the system. And mobility can help create that greater understanding and open-mindedness.

Also, mobility should be about going in and out of the UN, to get some ‘fresh air’ and come back with new perspectives. Right now, I and many colleagues have reached the conclusion that the system is not equipped to give those opportunities to staff.

In the Foundation’s 2020 report, The Art of Leadership in the United Nations: Framing What’s Blue, Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlstrom discussed the importance of mobility in strengthening leadership practices and traits in the UN system.

She argued that the UN system leadership framework, for example, encourages multi-dimensional leadership skills that should be acquired through mobility within and outside the system. At the same time, inter-agency transfers and secondments have seen a decline for each grade.

The majority of the organisations in the UN system do not have a clear system to track mobility within and outside the UN, although such a system could benefit human resources and management decisions and help build up the required talent pool.

What could or should the UN Secretariat do to promote greater mobility?

There are many things the Secretariat could do, if only to be a bit more like certain agencies in which mobility is a lived reality for many staff.

First, it needs to open up the system, and get fresh perspectives, including from the private sector. One could imagine exchanges and rotations, where our staff could also get out there, gain experience in the private sector and come back. That inside–outside mobility is critical.

We also need to reward mobility and elevate it in career progression opportunities. This means injecting more equity across the system.

There is a sentiment in the field that Headquarters-based staff are more protected, more privileged, better connected to jobs in New York or Geneva. This isn’t healthy and has an impact, especially on national staff who see little progression opportunities, including with Headquarters-level posts that seem completely locked.

And the Secretariat must also make it easier – particularly for women – to move around. Too often, deciding between a family and a career in hardship duty stations is an either/or choice. And women in particular often bear the difficult consequences of that choice.

Right now, for those who do want to move around, and serve in conflict zones, they have to know what they get into, and the hard choices they will have to make. Those choices should be made easier. And they never tell you about these realities when you enter the system.

What concluding messages do you want to share on these issues?

I want to reiterate the point about mobility as a mindset, an essential element of the leadership mindset. Beyond moving physically from one post to the other, or one country to the other, it is also about opening up your mind, being open and flexible.

It doesn’t guarantee success, and I have been part of my share of failures, but without it, failure is indeed guaranteed. So, you have to model it, as a practice and a mindset.

And those experiences in the field are what the UN is all about. It is hard, it is challenging but it is very enriching and immensely rewarding, and I am very grateful for the opportunities I have had to serve the UN across the world over the last 35 years and be allowed to make a difference.


Peter de Clercq is currently a senior consultant to the United Nations and a Visiting Professor in the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the former Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia (UNSOM) and Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator in that country. He has worked with the UN and in the diplomatic field for 35 years at various duty stations in peacekeeping, political affairs, development and humanitarian operations. He retired from his regular UN career at the Assistant Secretary-General level.

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.

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.