Advice from peers: Skills for successful leaders

By Emma Smith 20 March 2017

A village council head attends a meeting to develop her leadership skills. Photo by: Ashutosh Negi /  UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

While there is some natural overlap between leadership and management roles, they contribute in different ways to the success of an organization. Managers focus more on the day-to-day tasks and processes that allow programs to function. This can include budgeting, planning and staff performance. Leaders, on the other hand, look for ways to inspire and motivate staff and align their work with the organization’s mission. With a long-term view, it is the leaders who set the goals and direction for an organization and are always searching for new and innovative ways to do things.

As with management, there are courses and strategies to help you develop your capabilities in leadership. But ultimately, soft skills are essential to success in this role. Here we look at which skills make successful leaders, according to global development leaders.

Communication skills

People are at the center of any organization and therefore should be the primary focus of its leaders. Great leaders communicate with their team members on a regular basis and in a variety of ways: one-on-one conversations, team meetings, emails or Skype calls. In the context of global development, where staff often work from different locations around the world, good communication is even more critical to build relationships and develop staff.

Alan Frisk is an experienced development professional who has served in both management and leadership positions with different organizations. He believes that, in addition to communication and organizational skills, “humility, emotional intelligence, empathy” are qualities necessary for good leadership.

Problem-solving and championing change

The ability to analyze situations and develop solutions is also highly important for those in leadership roles, particularly in allowing them to think about the bigger picture and longer term impacts. In solving problems, good leaders should not only be open to change, but welcome it.

The challenges facing global development are constantly evolving and so must the approaches of organizations, leaders, and staff in the sector. Massimo Alone, who currently serves as country director for a humanitarian and development organization, says flexibility and adaptability are the most valuable skills for successful leadership.

Knowing your weaknesses

Chen Reis spent many years working in humanitarian assistance in the field and says leadership roles aren’t necessarily for everyone. From her experience, the one commonality of all good leaders was an ability to acknowledge their weaknesses and be honest about their limitations. Reis cites an example where one leader confessed to his team that he wasn’t good at picking up on emotional signals, so he asked staff to be upfront in communicating their problems to him.

Everyone has their weaknesses — even leaders — and being honest with yourself and the people you work with can help you grow as a leader and build trust with your team.

Technical skills

In the global development sector, a background or technical expertise in at least one area can go a long way in allowing you to understand how the organization operates as a whole. According to Frisk, it is helpful for leaders to have specialized knowledge of at least one programmatic area or region.

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“I have worked with leaders who come directly from the business and finance sectors, but they don't always understand programming. Being a good administrator with experience in motivating people is not enough. It’s important to be able to delve deep into one or more sectors, for example, engineering, education or psychosocial work, in order to have some common ground with programmers and continue to develop yourself professionally,” Frisk explained.

He added that he believes his background in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction has served him well in many of the different contexts he’s worked in over the years.

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About the author

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Emma Smith

Emma Smith is a reporting and communications associate at Devex, based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to our global development community. Emma has a background in journalism and, in addition to writing for news publications, has worked with organizations focusing on child rights and women’s rights in sustainable development.


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