A UN culture of integrity: An interview with Karin Landgren

“I find myself saying ‘I was part of an initiative’ even when I was leading that initiative!”

Karin Landgren is the Executive Director of Security Council Report. She served with the United Nations for over 35 years and is the first woman to have headed three UN peace operations mandated by the Security Council.

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

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

Standing up for human rights and for the principles of the UN Charter.

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

A few years ago, during the selection campaign for the current Secretary-General, I wrote about this, highlighting five traits for a UN leader:

  1. Being diplomatic, dexterous and charismatic;
  2. Asserting global intellectual leadership while maintaining a credible moral voice;
  3. Orienting the entire UN System towards greater candour, collegiality and coherence;
  4. Communicating and presenting the UN’s vision; and
  5. Connecting the organisation with a world of constituencies.

We also need humility in leadership. Dag Hammarskjöld once said: ‘Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others can receive your orders without being humiliated’.

In the field, it is vital to interact with national staff, who are as much a part of the UN community as the internationals. As the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in Liberia, I decided to have small meetings with national UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) staff, not just the massive town hall meetings where the same people always take the floor.

I sat down with groups of 15–20 national staff, and talked about UNMIL’s aims and the role of the UN and also opened the floor for these colleagues to talk about anything they wanted – from their health insurance to the future of their country.

Several staff told me that this was their first ever face-to-face meeting with UNMIL’s SRSG. These meetings helped us tremendously later, when Ebola broke out in Liberia, and we had more of a relationship on which to base the directives that would keep us all safe through the epidemic.

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

The UN’s uniqueness stems from where its accountability lies. Its personnel – its civil servants – are accountable to the Secretary-General and to the organisation’s principles, which give high priority to integrity (even if it is weakly defined), and according to which staff members are not to take instruction from Member States. For that to work in practice, it has to be modelled by the organisation’s leadership.


Karin Landgren in Accra

Karin Landgren delivered the Kofi Annan–Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture in Accra, Ghana, on 19 April 2016 on the theme Opening for Transformation: Three Security Reviews.


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

When Ian Martin was Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the East Timor Popular Consultation, in 1999, he remained in the besieged UN compound in Dili with some of his staff, thousands of civilians and some journalists, at a time of chaos and violence and fear. This was a bold choice. Compassion, humility, empathy, solidarity with the staff, and bravery when necessary – this is what I want to see in a leader.

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

There is a gendered aspect to leadership that must be recognised. In my experience, women generally give themselves less time to reflect on their own leadership experiences and qualities. I have noticed, sitting on selection panels, that men more often tell fluent stories about what they led, directed or accomplished.

Women more often speak in the ‘we’ form about achievements. I find myself saying ‘I was part of an initiative’ even when I was leading that initiative! Men also react to and register women’s leadership less, or less well, than they do the leadership of other men.

I recently read a friend’s memoir in which he speaks glowingly of dozens of male colleagues, who are variously brilliant, energetic or collegial. Women are all but absent from this book, and when they appear, it is largely without the fulsome adjectives.

Unconscious biases are powerful, and we all have them. The UN needs more in-depth internal reflection on leadership among senior women, and also among men.

Years back UNICEF used to send its senior women leaders to a leadership seminar in Sweden. Among other things, we discussed a leadership culture that moves away from a ‘power’ model and more towards considering the qualities that might make others want to follow one.

I realised that I, too, had needed ‘permission’ to reflect on the factors that shaped me, on initiatives I had taken and led, on strengths and weaknesses.

I was once told that the UN hires staff according to their resumé but fires them over personal misdeeds. More scrutiny in the selection process, adequate mentoring and less tolerance of toxic and abusive behaviours are called for.

The UN Secretary-General should give clear messages about what kind of leadership he is looking for in the UN’s senior cadre. He needs to set the strategic direction and model new behaviours and signal expectations explicitly to senior staff – even to those who previously served as ministers in their own country.

He needs to stake out and claim a UN culture of integrity. UN staff are an international civil service that should be known for positive qualities, not for scandal.

Karin Landgren joined Security Council Report in May 2018 as its Executive Director. She was until 2015 a UN Under Secretary-General and head of the UN Mission in Liberia, and led UNMIL’s response to Ebola through the height of the epidemic. Prior to this, she led two political missions, the UN Office in Burundi and the UN Mission in Nepal. She was UNICEF’s first chief of child protection from 1998 to 2008. While with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 1980 to 1998, she served in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eritrea, Singapore, the Philippines and India, and at its headquarters in Geneva. She is also a founding member of the Nordic Women Mediators’ Network and has taught at Columbia University and Central European University.

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström By Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström is a Programme Manager at the Foundation, covering the financing, form and functions of the UN development system, and UN leadership. Previously, Veronika worked for several international foundations and projects including the Friedrich Ebert Foundation; the European Centre for Development Policy Management; the European Commission’s TradeCom Facility; and for PARTICIP, coordinating the European Commission’s Results Oriented Monitoring System for the Western Balkan region and the European Institute of Peace. She also conducts short-term assignments for the UN Secretariat, United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office and UNDP.

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