‘Leadership should build on the very foundation of the organisation’

We recognise International Human Rights Day with a Leadership Interview Leni Stenseth, Deputy Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Veronika Tywuschik Sohlström and Marijana Markotić from the Foundation’s Leadership team asked the questions.

About Leni Stenseth

Leni Stenseth is the Deputy Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) since 2020.

She brings nearly 20 years of experience in international politics, diplomacy, humanitarian action, and crisis management, with most of that time serving in leadership positions at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Red Cross.

Her last posting was serving as the Norwegian Ambassador to Lebanon. Leni Stenseth holds a bachelor’s degree in Law and Political Science, and a master’s degree in International Relations, from the University of Oslo, Norway.

When you think about the concept of leadership in the UN, what comes to your mind? Are people still looking for leadership from the United Nations (UN)?

My response to this question is to highlight the two separate dimensions namely Leadership from the UN and Leadership in the UN. (Leni expands on her approach to leadership in UNWRA in greater detail later in this interview).

Globally, I believe many people are indeed looking for leadership from the UN. However, they don’t necessarily see it, which is a challenge. The inability of the Security Council to deal with the most imminent security threats that we’re facing as a global community as well as the struggle to provide efficient leadership in many of the countries where we operate weakens the image of the UN as a global thought leader and enabler for change. People may look elsewhere in their quest for change. Despite all these challenges, I strongly believe in the centrality of the UN as a driver for global, transformative change. The UN certainly needs to seek stronger partnerships, to better understand its enabling role and to work collectively with a multitude of stakeholders in order to fulfil its leadership role. In a complex and challenging world people are still looking to the UN for leadership, and it is crucial that we as UN leaders do our part to realise the yet unused potential of the UN system as a leader of change in a messy, troubled world order.

Therefore to me, any approach to leadership in the UN should build on the very foundation of the organisation. UN Leaders must embed the norms, principles and values of the organisation in their leadership. This includes human rights norms, humanitarian principles, including the non-discrimination and gender equality principles to name a few. It matters how leadership is conducted in the UN. Not only at the very top, but on all levels within the organisation. It is crucial that we as leaders in the organisation constantly reflect on what it means to be a UN leader and what it entails. A UN leader is entrusted with a responsibility on behalf of the world community. We should understand that accountability is a key aspect. In many of my previous leadership roles prior to joining the organisation, I often worked with UN leaders. I must admit, prior to joining the UN, there was often a curiosity about what was driving them. And I am still curious. This is often an issue I raise with fellow leaders in the organisation. It is extremely interesting to explore how UN leaders perceive themselves and the leadership roles they have been entrusted.

Leadership in the UN is about common and shared values. But, also about diversity. Leaders in the UN system are naturally influenced by their cultural and social backgrounds. This brings strength to the organisation. However, at the same time, UN leaders must be committed to and strive to adopt and integrate the core values of the organisation. Since I joined UNRWA, looking at the 30 000 staff representing the communities where we operate, brought me to spend time reflecting on how I, as a senior leader in the organisation can best promote the core values of the UN in my leadership and how I can do my part to ensure that UN values are integrated and reflected in the applied leadership at all levels in our complex organisation.

‘I have seen that in order to grow as a leader, it is important to seek out new challenges.’

This year, we have decided to roll out the leadership dialogues concept. The Commissioner General and I will initiate open conversations around specific values, ethical issues or particular dilemmas that leaders in our organisation would often have to tackle. Our purpose will be to raise awareness around what it means to be a leader in an UN organisation, to create stronger leadership networks among our more than one thousand leaders on different levels and to establish a leadership culture where ethics and values play an essential part.

You have been working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an Ambassador, in civil society organisations, like the Red Cross and now for an international organisation. What have you learned from these various roles and how have those shaped you as a leader today?

Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of being entrusted with senior leadership roles in very different types of organisations. Often being asked why I have been constantly seeking new leadership challenges in different organisations or sectors, rather than applying a more long-term perspective within one sector. I guess the answer could be quite simple; it boils down to one of my key personality traits: Curiosity!

I am also driven by new challenges, by constantly having to change, adapt and learn. While this can at times be overwhelming, I also find it highly motivating. And it strengthens my resilience. Each leadership experience has been unique and has shaped the way I fill my current leadership role. This diverse leadership experience taught me a couple of things. The first thing is the importance of striking the right balance between adaptation and consistency in my leadership approach – one size doesn’t fit all. Second, when you join a completely new organisation it’s very important to understand its specific challenges, and to identify what kind of leadership style is required to deliver results. Third, I have learned the importance of staying true to my own key values.

‘For me, both as a national and as an international civil servant, serving in a leadership position is highly connected to accountability.’

Most of us have preconceived perceptions about organisations, sectors, people, workplaces and cultures. I do, too. When joining a new organisation, it is extremely important to acknowledge this ‘filter’ and to be mindful of the need to see beyond our own perceptions. To be curious and open-minded and observe. I have not always been good enough at this and have learned from my own mistakes.

I joined UNRWA bringing with me a set of preconceived opinions about the organisation. Having observed the organisation for years – as a funding partner representing a government, as an operational partner when working for the Red Cross movement and as a diplomat. I was conscious of this when I accepted the role as Deputy Commissioner General in UNRWA and have tried my best not to be blindfolded by my perceptions. I think one key element in this is to focus on the people working in the organisation. To be curious about who they are and what they think. And as a part of the top management, it crucial that this curiosity is extended to staff at all levels, not only to the senior management.

Have you experienced any difference in leadership experiences and challenges with your various hats?

In all my roles as a national and international civil servant, and as a leader in civil society, accountability has been key. As a national civil servant, you are trusted to serve a population or a community. You are paid using taxpayers’ money. As international civil servants, we have the same responsibility and accountability. Being trusted with leadership positions in entities and organisations that are mandated to serve a community come with huge responsibilities.

So does my current job as Deputy Commissioner general in UNRWA which is my first UN experience. Being new to the UN when joining at such a senior level has been both a blessing and a curse. The UN is an extremely complex organisation to start with and UNRWA is particularly complex being the largest UN organisation with more than 30 000 staff, providing education, health services and emergency assistance to millions of Palestine refugees.

I joined UNRWA 2020, in the aftermath of a profound management crisis that struck the organisation in 2019. UNRWA had also been through years of austerity measures due to lack of funding and was under constant financial pressure threatening the mere existence of the organisation. When joining, I found an organisation traumatised by the multiple crisis that they had been through. This was not one, but many challenges I had to face. I also joined the organisation at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. For the first full year, more or less, work was only online with limited in-person contact with any of my new colleagues. For me this was an immense challenge. Without the opportunity to get to know colleagues, meet and be with them, it was almost impossible to build my understanding of the key challenges, to set priorities and understand the organisational culture.

I thrive as a leader when relating to people, when I can discuss, interact, consolidate, disagree and laugh together with my colleagues. Building understanding through observing interpersonal dynamics, through being around staff and learning through them. The Covid-19 isolation made none of this possible. It was like running in complete darkness for almost a year. I think my first year in UNRWA was my most challenging leadership experience so far.

Many have described my leadership style as ‘Nordic’ and I believe they are right, depending how this is defined, of course. I ‘grew up’ as a leader in a Nordic context and this have certainly shaped the way I define my leadership approach. In Scandinavia, leaders are in general expected to consult, not command. The ability to admit failure is considered a strength, not a weakness. You deliver results through others, as a leader you are more a coach than a boss. But you are of course, still expected to give direction and to take tough decisions. This approach to leadership is not always immediately understood – or appreciated. It is certainly not the only way to conduct leadership. There is no ONE formula for successful leadership.

As a leader I have learned that you grow through both failure and success. Leaders who admit failure foster a healthy work culture. If failure is not treasured, you build a risk avert culture that hampers innovation and change. I have accepted that I sometimes fail, and it does not scare me as it did before.

‘Value-based leadership throughout the organisation is key to UNRWA. Another thing I believe is very important is the ability to both create and to communicate and lead through change.’

You are currently holding the position of Deputy Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. UNRWA has unique features embedded in its staff composition, funding and mandate. Which particular leadership dimensions are relevant to UNRWA?

The majority of the staff at UNRWA is Palestinian refugees. Among them we have many leaders, so it’s important to keep in mind that leadership is always the result of an exchange between the society you live in and the values you hold. Together they shape the culture of an organisation. In terms of value-based leadership I believe we need to enable our staff and our leaders at all levels to lead according to human values. Among our 30,000 staff members there are many leaders who do not necessarily see themselves as leaders, but they are UN staff and leaders in their communities. We want them to stand out in their communities where people look for UN leadership.

If we focus only on the senior management of an organisation, and their leadership roles, I think we will fail. Value-based leadership throughout the organisation is key to UNRWA. Another thing I believe is very important is the ability to both create and to communicate and lead through change. This organisation needs to change and of course, it is changing as we speak. But it is also very conservative, because it’s so deeply anchored in the culture of its five different fields of operation namely Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank.

Organisational change in a challenging political context with many political sensitivities is very difficult. So, focusing on change, understanding change and leading through change is key. I think that we need to work very hard to enable our leaders at all levels to lead the change and contribute to changing the course of the organisation. I strongly believe that we need to invest more in value-based leadership and change management in our organisation. There is no choice, the UN has to change at all levels. Coming from the donor side, where we were hammering on change and we did not see it coming, and now being on the inside, I understand why this is so. I tell my former colleagues in the government: The UN is changing, but it´s so slow that you don´t see it.

The concept of feminist leadership: Does it mean anything to you? How is it relevant to UNRWA and to the UN?

Feminist leadership is important and is part of the Nordic leadership model, they are two sides of the same coin. I was privileged to grow as a leader in a society with a feminist agenda, and now I understand why this is so important. I come to my colleagues with questions, and not decisions. This is a core element of feminist leadership, one should strive to be more consultative and to create space for women’s voices.

At UNRWA we established Women’s Advisory Forums as all representatives and leaders of the staff unions are men it was necessary to hear women´s voices and meet with them on a regular basis, which we do during our field visits. I hope that when I leave the organisation there will be more room for women to grow within the organisation as their voices have not always been heard. As Madeleine Albright once said, ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’

Are there any leadership references that inspire you in your work, such as people, books, or any other lessons?

Rather than looking up at well-known leaders for inspiration, I find inspiration in the young people I meet at the workplace. When I meet young leaders who have a vision, energy and the ability to create collective ownership around a common cause, I often ask them what makes them successful. I always get inspired by the answers I get.

We have one last question: What advice would you give them future young women leaders?

 The answer that I often give is that it is important to not only ‘be yourself’ but also to ‘know yourself’. It is important to know your own personality and to understand how you manage yourself. If you try to copy leaders who inspire you, you will probably not succeed. A guiding principle for me as a leader is to strive to be a better version of myself, every day.

My one-piece of advice for young women is to be ambitious. It can be done. As women we must fulfil many expectations and roles. Professional ambitions should not be put aside in that equation. We can manage all these roles. But the key priority should always be to find your inner happiness, whatever it takes. Life is a balancing act.