Leadership in conflict defined by 'durability of solution thinking'

By Kelli Rogers 24 August 2015

A boy receives humanitarian supplies from Mercy Corps in Lebanon. What makes good humanitarian response leader? Photo by: Mercy Corps

There are inherent personality traits in someone who will most likely be successful working in a complex crisis. They’re easy to describe, harder to realize and even harder to capture at the right time.

Humanitarian response leadership is about confidence and risk taking, persistence and personal resilience, according to Michael Bowers, senior director of strategic response and global emergencies for Mercy Corps.

“It’s tolerance of ambiguity,” said Bowers, who began his career in Kosovo. “We get a lot of people stewing in that for so long — in South Sudan, in Syria, surrounded by a bombardment of challenges. It’s not just thinking quickly, it’s something that’s protracted years … with no end in sight.”

Bowers leads Mercy Corps' team of global first responders. With over a decade of experience directing programs in war-torn regions including the Balkans, Afghanistan and Pakistan, his work has included immediate response work after disasters in Haiti and the Philippines, as well as helping millions of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon and most recently the Nepal relief efforts.

It’s a “durability of solution thinking” that allows leaders to excel in such circumstances, Bowers said, but it’s becoming harder to meet the increasing demand for such talent in protracted crisis contexts.

Below is an excerpt from Devex’s conversation with Bowers on humanitarian response leadership.

The personality type of people who excel in emergency response is specific and certainly unique — it also plays into the limited number of people who succeed in this type of work. What other factors do you think contribute to the limited number of leaders in this sector? What is competition like between organizations for the same high-level talent?

Read more about the current tug of war for humanitarian response talent:

The last humanitarian response leader

There are inherent personality traits in someone who will most likely be successful working in a complex crisis. They’re easy to describe, harder to realize and even harder to capture at the right time. Groups will end up in a tug of war over the last humanitarian response leader unless they band together to sharpen recruitment and widen the talent-finding net.

Humanitarian organizations often do compete in the same recruitment space for a limited number of positions. However, when you factor in requirements such as languages spoken, experience with a particular context or management capacity, the available number of talented individuals is surprisingly limited — though the sector has grown overall. It’s becoming harder to meet the increasing demand for seasoned and flexible team members who are available and willing to deploy repeatedly, at times to conflict zones.

The humanitarian aid sector has been criticized for drawing too heavily on a limited pool of proven humanitarian leaders. Not only that, but leaders within humanitarian aid have told Devex that there aren't enough leaders "on the bench" or ready to step in and relieve someone who has been leading during a protracted crisis for too long. Will this lead to a shortage?

Though the “pool” of leaders has actually increased, it hasn’t kept pace with the duration, frequency and complexity of emergencies we are experiencing.

Often our team members are predominately focused on development or long-term poverty reduction programs, which draw upon a different mentality as well as different social and technical fields. It’s critical for leaders to be able to recognize changing needs and quickly pivot from development programming to relief and recovery. This kind of empowered humanitarian decision-making will be critical in the coming decade to tackle the complex crises and confluence of failed or fragile states we are facing.

The United Nations has undergone reform to try to address this, Save the Children has recently established an "academy for aid workers" and you mentioned Mercy Corps has brought in fellows from academia as well as been in touch with private sector to widen their scope. What else is the humanitarian community doing to widen its hiring practices and build a stronger pipeline of talent and future leaders?

Mercy Corps invests in future leaders through various partnerships with academic and practitioner-based organizations. Our Entrepreneurial Leadership Program is based on the principles that drive both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises: critical thinking, business analysis and emotional intelligence. We also partner with well-known technology firms from Silicon Valley to further expand our leadership base and are involved with groups that focus on well-being and behavioral health.

Increasingly, the humanitarian community does recognize the lessons learned from private industry and adopts many of the key tenets of adaptive management. All in line with attracting talented individuals who might otherwise choose professions outside of the humanitarian sphere.

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

About the author

Kelli Rogers@kellierin

In her role as associate editor, Kelli Rogers helps to shape Devex content around leadership, professional growth and careers for professionals in international development, humanitarian aid and global health. As the manager of Doing Good, one of Devex's highest-circulation publications, she is constantly on the lookout for the latest staffing changes, hiring trends and tricks for recruiting skilled local and international staff for aid projects that make a difference. Kelli has studied or worked in Spain, Costa Rica and Kenya.

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