Reflections on the pandemic and UN leadership

In this blog, Marc Jacquand explores what we need from leaders, particularly UN leaders, during this ‘new normal’.

With the COVID-19 pandemic’s immediate health impact being gradually overshadowed by its political and social implications, a few of its defining features  are starting to emerge. Three in particular seem to solidify in our collective psyche, like silt remains following a storm surge: Uncertainty, inequality and humbleness.

Uncertainty seems pervasive. Even now, months after the virus first emerged, consensus over how it spreads and how to contain it, let alone cure it, remains fragile. Debates about when and what to re-open rage on. As a result, we are all uncertain about what will happen to us; what our lives will be like in a few months, or when it is safe enough to to see our parents. The uncertainty about the ‘new normal’ is fuelled and exacerbated by a longing for the ‘old times’, which, one thing seems for sure, are forever past.

The pandemic is also exposing deep inequalities. While the virus knows no borders, it does discriminate. One only needs to witness the changes in New York City, here the rich quickly left the epicenter of the crisis to find comfort in the Hamptons, while the less well off stayed, dealing with cramped apartments and silent streets. Inequality in how one lives the crisis will soon be superseded by inequality in impact, now and into the future.

And the pandemic is humbling. Not so long ago, from Silicon Valley to labs in South Africa and India, most of the talk was about mankind’s increasing control of its destiny and of nature. Last year, we were dreaming of Martian exploration, unmanned vehicles and AI fuelled medicinal progress. This year, we have struggled to get our hands on cotton masks. Deploying testing kits seemed like in insurmountable endeavour. How quickly have we, Icarus, fallen, and how steeply.

It is difficult to deal with all three features simultaneously. They test us, and can weaken our resolve collectively and individually. Efforts to address one can further reveal and exacerbate the others. They breed conflict and violence, as we now see across the US and around the world. So of course, one turns to leaders and leadership to build an adequate defense against this three-headed hydra. But in an era where the definition of leadership is itself contested, mired in myriad ideological agendas left and right, it is perhaps more effective to name the leadership traits that matter most.

What do we need from leaders during this ‘new normal’?

Two traits seem particularly relevant. The first is courage to accept, face and manage the uncertainty in a manner that preserves hope, sustains resilience, and prepares for better days. Courage means not being afraid to expose inequalities, speak to them, and offer bold, difficult, and politically unpopular solutions, at personal and professional risk, including in terms of inter-generational solidarity. Courage is also to accept these humbling times, and then restore ‘mankind’ at the right level: not to elevate it to its previous self-conceited status, but to a more truthful and pacified acceptance of itself.

At the same time, we need trust in one’s ability to expose these inconvenient truths, and trust that others will accept and embrace them. A sustained and pacified recovery requires trust that better days are ahead. Trust lies in the value of humility, in its empowering affect, and, to paraphrase Dag Hammarskjöld, in the reality that what mankind loses in power – or the illusion of power – it will gain in individual and collective fulfilment.

What can we learn about courage from UN leadership?

The advent of the pandemic coincided with the release of the publication The Art of Leadership in the United Nations: Framing What’s Blue, which compiled thematic and personal perspectives on UN leadership, past and present. But one must recognise the cruel irony with this accidental concurrence. In these humbling and uncertain days, do people still look to the UN to provide direction and reassurances that better days are indeed yet to come?

Let’s assume some do. Many contributors to the publication have worked in the hardest places, under the harshest circumstances and in war torn contexts which, for all that is unique about each one of them, were as unsettling as today’s; when what tomorrow might look like was never a given, and where professional, social and personal habits were upended continuously, without a clear remedy in sight.

And many do speak indeed about courage, notably when defining courageous action as the ability to face dangers, including attacks on one’s personal integrity, choices, and career. Courage is featured prominently in UN doctrine and discourse, and, as the stories show, practiced by some.  But frankly, courage is always in short supply, so the real question is: what can the UN do to enable courage and allow for its officials to take risks?

There are technocratic fixes, like improving incentives, contracts, and employment prospects, but the deeper issue, I believe, is related to identity, which is what we often fight the hardest for. While the UN Charter plays an important part in shaping identity, it is also true that many people tie their identity to status, grade, and contract. When that is the case, people will stay conservative, and reluctant to exercise the courage that is required. When people can’t imagine their contribution to the UN ideals independently of formal UN entitlements then it is harder to exercise true courage. And yet, the publication speaks to many examples of individuals who, by exercising real courage grew closer to their UN identity at the price of losing their UN administrative perks. But the recurrent calls for courage speak to those as the exception, at a time when it should be the norm.

What about trust and UN leadership?

While the publication says plenty about courage, trust, on the other hand, is far less cited. When it is, it is mainly in conventional terms of building and creating trust, between parties or within a team. Similarly, many references speak to a second trust dimension, defined as “being trustworthy”, with people trusting you to do the right thing, to exercise courage, and so forth.

The emphasis on creating or building trust ignores a third and equally fundamental dimension of trust: the trust in others, and in them doing what is right. This dimension is harder than all others, because it is the most humbling. It requires self-effacement, and relinquishing some form of formal power.  To trust others to do what is right places the self on the periphery, not the center; off stage, not on stage. Without such trust, UN leaders fall intro the trap of thinking of themselves as providential beings – a quite frequent risk in today’s work. Alas, few, if any of the contributions, address this dimension.

Current Secretary-General Guterres is one of the lone eloquent voices speaking to this aspect of trust.  Witness his acceptance speech: ‘The threats to these values are most often based on fear. Our duty to the people we serve is to work together to move from fear of each other to trust in each other. Trust in the values that bind us, and trust in the institutions that serve and protect us.’ These words hark back to those written by former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, if only implicitly, in Markings. They need to be amplified.

What can the UN do to promote courage and trust?

So how can the UN enable courage, the risky kind, and strengthen trust, the one that is emitting, outwardly focused? I would offer a few suggestions.

First speak to it. UN leaders, following the Secretary-General’s cue should say more about courage and trust in their speeches, briefings, and policy papers; the world will not listen to just bureaucratic utterances. The UN needs to achieve a better symphonic balance between such technocratic speak and value based rhetoric, with the latter unapologetically placing courage and trust at the center of what it stands for and supports.

Then, model it within the organisation. Recent surveys place trust at the bottom of the ranks when it comes to the lived experience of UN staff.  Courage and trust start with the UN having an internal honest discussion about challenges, about the gap between the UN’s current place and its rightful place in the world, as a measure of what needs to be done. Courage that the staff will accept and recognise the magnitude of the task, and trust that they will rise to it.

And shine the spotlight on those, outside of the UN, who exemplify these traits. This applies notably to the women political leaders who have managed the pandemic crisis with maturity, aplomb, effectiveness and elegance, as well as to those working more in the shadows. Courage to admit that they didn’t have all the answers right away, and trust that their countries would come together and overcome the crisis.

Is now the time to reframe our understanding of leadership?

In W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, depicting the fall of Icarus and mankind’s reaction, he offers a dual message: it is at once a warning to man to not fly too close to the sun, and a call for man not to ignore Icarus’ suffering after his fall, and to not let him drown. In 2020, in this historic moment, we should not forget man’s faults and guilt in bringing about this crisis. We should also not to gloat in his suffering: we need responsibility and recovery, underpinned by courage and trust.  And it is where and when leaders have addressed this dual imperative, and embraced these two traits that the response has in fact been most effective, that the suffering has been less acute.

Therefore, now is the time, probably long overdue, to reframe concepts of leadership away from formal and institutional power, and to move the discussion away from the ‘strong men’ fallacy to the reality of courageous and trusting people as the true leaders. Through action and words, deeds and discourse, the UN has to be part of this transformation.

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.

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