Leaders in the firing line: on integrity, commitment and passion
I’m privileged to be coaching UNICEF leaders again this year. These are the people who lead UNICEF country offices and field offices around the world and who run the infrastructure at UNICEF HQ in New York and elsewhere. Some of these leaders are based in regions which are amongst the most dangerous and unstable in the world – Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria…
I’m one of those lucky people who really love the work I do with leaders, and I frequently feel fulfilled and excited by it. This, however, offers something a bit different from other assignments. Some of these people choose roles in which they have to leave their families elsewhere – sometimes whole continents away – because their postings are too unsafe to have their families with them. Some of them are in danger of their lives if they’re spotted in a UN-marked vehicle, and in some places just getting to a field station or an airport can be a life-threatening experience. Natural disasters and political upheaval demand instant responses by leaders who need mastery of people skills, diplomatic skills, technical skills, knowledge, vision, adaptability, resilience, initiative and endurance. Stress levels are high, and the most basic resources and infrastructure are often lacking.
Some of these leaders have put themselves or their careers at risk by refusing to condone or collude with corrupt practices. Their integrity, their commitment and their passion for their cause – the promotion and defence of children’s rights, survival, security and protection – are quite simply dazzling.
And when they’re asked why they do it, they either respond ‘Someone has to’ or they find the question almost bizarre, meaningless. They take their commitment for granted.
This seam of gold runs right through the group of six I’m working with this year (and I gather it’s common to the wider cohort of 37 going through the programme). It was the same with the 35 leaders on last year’s programme.
The task of leadership in such environments needs to take account of a stressed and overstretched workforce, leaders’ loneliness and isolation from their loved ones, effective influence to secure funding going forward, and often extreme pressure to deliver. A familiar agenda for any senior leader, you might say.
However, I’m struck, and awed, by the elegant simplicity of integrity of these leaders, their courage, their self-sacrifice and their passion. It’s this combination that makes it so humbling, so inspiring and so energising to be working with them. How often do we find anything similar in our businesses and institutions in locations where we take it as read that going to work isn’t going to involve risking our lives for the sake of someone else’s welfare on an hourly and daily basis?