Solving problems and shifting systems with intentional ethical leadership

In the Foundation’s Art of UN Leadership interview series, Programme Manager Edit Morin-Kovacs was in conversation with Dr Monica Sharma during her visit at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation where she conducted a short workshop on principled and ethical leadership.

About Monica Sharma

Monica Sharma is the former UN Director of Leadership and Capacity Development and she worked in different UN agencies from 1988 to 2010.

Continuing her transformational leadership work globally, she is the author of ‘Radical Transformational Leadership – Strategic Action for Change Agents’, which received the Nautilus Gold Award for Business and Leadership.


In this interview we learn more about the ‘Conscious Full Spectrum Response Model’, an innovative approach introduced in her book.This model is based on over 700 experiences in projects and programmes, which I created with many people; and I found that it brings together the essential components of how we need to design for equitable change, and how we need to strategise’, she says.

The model proposes to simultaneously solve problems, shift systems and norms, and create new patterns, drawing upon an individual’s inner capacities. Monica Sharma talks about food security and workplace safety as examples of how individuals can tap into their inner capacities and wisdom to manifest change, embodying universal values of dignity, compassion, and fairness.

To her, the word ‘conscious’ means ‘intentional’. ‘We are doing it based on our intention and the most important aspect is to know who I am. In the world, the greatest asset is everyone touching that inner space related to what they really care about.’

The first step in this model is to ask: ’What do I, Monica (or anyone else), really care about? The second step is to ask the question: ‘If this is what I care about, how do I want to manifest this in the world today?’ The process, she says, is then to see, ‘what actions should I take, what kind of situations do I need to change?’

Monica Sharma explains that for her ‘situations’ include ‘systems and culture as well as the problems we need to solve.’

Coping with global hunger

Monica Sharma starts with an example of society’s response to food security. ‘We have enough people to feed the world, but a billion people go to bed hungry, so let me take food as an example’. She says: ´I am hungry – should there be action when I am hungry? Of course. What do I need when I am hungry? I need food, whether that is from a soup kitchen or making food available. For example, in some countries like India there are ration cards, making sure there is access to food. Even in rich countries, like the United States, there are fresh-food deserts where people do not have access to nutritious food; and interventions to address this, are put in place.’

‘I question: when we have an abundance of food worldwide, why do a billion people go to bed hungry? Why is it that 22 thousand people, mostly children, die every single day, out of hunger or malnutrition? It’s a question we must ask. Do I then need to awaken my deep caring for humanity to ask the question and come up with a response?’

I inquire: what do I really care about? I care about equity.’

‘There are many people who care about fairness and equity but do not have the opportunity to express that.

For me that is what this CFSR model does – it allows me to ponder about an issue; and then do something about it. Why is it that 22 thousand people die of hunger daily? Why is it that a billion goes to bed hungry when we have an abundance of food? What can I do?’

‘That thought, knowing I care about justice and equity, stimulates me to act in any domain – it could be food, health, education, any domain. And when I say ‘yes, I will do something’, I act in order to have food where there is none and strategise so that people have access to food and have food in their homes. Getting food is not enough, though. What are the cultural norms that need to be changed? In many cultures, for example, preference is given to male child or the men in a family, when there is limited food. Such cultural practices need to change.’

‘There are many people who care about fairness and equity but do not have the opportunity to express that.’

‘Then there are systems that need to change. For example, we need to see how we subsidise food in some countries. Subsidies given for agriculture in the USA, and EU countries, are more than US$ 1 billion a day. African farmers can’t sell their products in the international market because the farmers from the USA and some EU countries sell their subsidised products at much cheaper prices in the international market.’

‘Subsidy is one issue. Healthy organic food is expensive because we subsidise fossil fuel industry related food. How will I partner with people to change it?’

Monica Sharma continues with an example on workplace safety using the conscious full spectrum response.

‘Imagine I am working in a factory which is not regulated, and I cut my finger in a machine. What do I need right away? I need immediate attention and taken to a place where my wound is treated. But will that solve the problem?’

‘No. The old and dangerous machinery needs to be changed; and people need to change workplace culture. The employers need to care enough to invest in changing the machinery. This is caring; this is cultural change and systems change because someone cares. This is how we connect, through practical problems in a workplace, in a society and at home.’

What does the ‘Conscious Full Spectrum Response’ mean?

‘Conscious’ is ‘intentional’; ‘full spectrum’, because it ‘engages every dimension of the human being – who I am, how I think and what I will do. And this the foundation of whole system transformation.´

The conversation meanders to explore how leadership comes into this model. ´Leadership, from a conceptual point of view, is my ability, your ability or anyone else’s ability to create something different for the future that works for the humanity and the planet. Everyone can do that.´

‘What I want to see in leadership is an ability to create new futures. A leader is a person around whom others grow; and a leader is a person who listens deeply, speaks responsibly, and changes the narratives in society that diminish people or the planet. Leadership for me is beyond hierarchy and it exists at all levels.’

As the focus of the conversation is the UN, Monica Sharma observed that ‘the UN is a beautiful, multicultural organisation that holds the world in its arms, in a way, and the mandate is wonderful, based on equity. The UN Charter is what we need put into practice. But UN leadership is like human beings everywhere – in government, academia, civil society. We are human, so one of our challenges is to embody human rights.

She raises some concerns though, ‘within the UN, we are expected to perform bureaucratic functions and we have lost some of the energy to do the things we really worry and care about.

One example Monica Sharma shares in this context is about reporting and fundraising. We have to do a number of things for coordination, donor reports – in some country offices some 50 % of the staff time goes to fundraising and donor visits and reports. That to me is not the good use of staff time. The UN leadership is bogged down in so many bureaucratic processes. A positive aspect is that it works across agencies, with diverse partnerships. However, many of these partnerships do not enhance actions related to the responsibility of the UN.’

Monica Sharma raises the question of equity and the SDGs as follows. ‘We are committed at the UN leadership to promote the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are also told to partner with business cooperation. And we do. But are those businesses really committed to equity? When we have partners that we act together with, but do not shift the systems and cultures that is needed, we are not making the impact we could.’

‘And that remains a big question. Funding is another one. It’s really vital that UN projects [and] UN partners are financed adequately, otherwise it becomes a theoretical support.’

Shortly before retiring from full-time work in the UN Monica Sharma received ‘The Spirit of the United Nations Award’. It recognises persons, whose work is an expression of the core principles, spirit and vision on which the UN was founded. This award was given after the 2005 special event ‘UN – Markings for the future’ to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the UN and the 100th birthday of its second Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

His spirituality is unique insofar that there is a deep sense of equity and justice behind it.

Wrapping up our conversation, Monica Sharma reflects on the importance of Dag Hammarskjöld in her life. While stationed at the UN Headquarters in New York, Monica Sharma meditated every day in the ‘Room of Quiet’ Hammarskjöld created.

‘His inspiration is unique. The first thing that inspires me is his deep connection with spirituality. The UN is at its best when we as staff are able to connect to this spirituality, which is the work I do.´

‘His spirituality is unique insofar that there is a deep sense of equity and justice behind it. Income poor countries have always supported him. He worked not for the most powerful countries but for countries whose voice nobody hears. To me, that is what draws me to his work – that he was about justice and spirituality. His life has the same flavour of caring, of total immersion with nature; and if we had that total immersion with nature, each one of us, we would not have the climate crisis.  His connection with arts, his humility of wisdom rather than the arrogance of knowledge, is an inspiration’.

Photo: Sandra Jakobsson


Edit Morin-Kovacs By Edit Morin-Kovacs

About Edit Morin-Kovacs

Edit Morin-Kovacs is the Foundation’s Programme Manager for UN Leadership. Over the last 25 years she has worked in the areas of conflict prevention,emergency contexts, crisis management, peacebuilding and international development.

Her rich experience has been built during her tenure with the United Nations, European Union as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the Western Balkans and Ukraine. She also held various consulting assignments in the Middle East.

Edit has master’s degrees in International Relations and Political Science.