Opinion: How to nurture great leaders in global development

Starlings in flight. Photo by: Judith / CC BY-NC-ND

Whether a small local organization wants to receive United States Agency for International Development funds directly, a mission wants to implement changes to support a Collaborate, Learn, Adapt culture, or we want to implement change in our own organizations, there is a common theme: Leadership matters.

Leadership-related findings permeate a recent large-scale study on what works in development:

1. It is a good indicator of a promising or problematic partner.

2. It signals a strong implementation team.

3. Professionals report feeling constrained or empowered to make good development choices by “permissions” of positional leaders.

In fact, leadership arose as a key success factor in half of the case studies and was well supported by the literature.

So what can we do to nurture great leadership in global development?

Retire the superhero and swarm instead

Traditional views of leadership embrace a “superhero” model. This myth states that organizations rise and fall because a chief executive officer or country director is a great leader. But studies show that leadership today needs to be more relational, recognizing that in well-performing organizations, leadership is distributed throughout the organization. In other words, organizations do not need superheroes; they need a swarm of leaders. Why?

We can learn a lot from starling murmuration. Starlings swarm so they are ready to respond optimally to threats such as peregrine falcons. Each individual bird is both leading and responding almost in an instant. Sometimes small groups will temporarily break off entirely only to draw back into the larger group later, much like subgroups do in organizations, driven by the push and pull of different forces inside and beyond the organization.

If we think about the organization as a swarm, in order to respond optimally to threats and opportunities, it is best if all individuals are prepared to lead.

To make this happen, those who have positional leadership need to be open to being led and to unlocking potential in others. Those who have less formal authority need to have skills in personal advocacy and speaking up. Viewed from this perspective, effective leadership “creates an environment where new knowledge — collective learning — can be co-created and implemented rather than just as the implementation of a top leader plan.”

Think about leadership in terms of outcomes

New thinking is that it might be helpful to think about leadership in terms of outcomes, specifically 1) direction — agreement on goals, 2) alignment — knowledge and work that are organized to achieve the goals, and 3) commitment — willingness of staff to put organizational goals ahead of personal goals. Then leadership is about creating a space in which everyone feels free — and compelled — to contribute and learn.

Find your organization’s purpose

While new funding streams may keep organizations running, money is not what motivates us. Whether you want to motivate your team or reduce burnout, focusing on the organization’s highest purpose builds the cohesiveness and sense of direction needed to swarm effectively.

How do you discern an organization’s purpose? By looking at what the organization hopes to achieve beyond the obvious. Look for what it can achieve that is worthy of your collective commitment, imagination, and energy. Once you make this connection deeply within the team, the team needs to make the ideal practical. So how do you do that?

Act in accordance with your purpose for self-reinforcing strength and resilience

It is out of this clarity that you can determine priorities, develop guidelines and work accordingly. When your group is having discussions or making decisions, bring the sense of purpose into the conversation. For example, if a group is discussing an advertising budget, a member of a purpose-driven group might say, “Our best and highest purpose is to improve the health of all Kenyans. How does this ad campaign help us do that?” If your staff share this higher purpose with you, it helps them contextualize decision making along those lines, avoid taking decisions personally and collaborate better in teams.

This purpose-oriented resilience helps your team survive the inevitable “weather systems” that can pass through in a development environment, including cuts in funding, visiting congressional delegations, and clampdowns on free speech.

This was recently brought home to me while I was working at the country mission of a donor organization, helping a team strategize their way through a 50 percent cut in funding. As the team came to terms with all the new constraints on their work, they did not shrivel. They bloomed, relentlessly pursuing their purpose. The limitations gave them the impetus to think about their work differently, and they produced a number of ideas that were each worth a million dollars or more in program funds.

Invest in people and teams

Given the importance of leadership to the well-functioning of organizations and teams, it makes sense for us to invest in people through ongoing leadership and development programs. Help leaders get off to a good start — new country directors, mission directors, team leaders, and chiefs of party — through investing in supportive systems and coaching at the outset, and have regular check-ins with them. There are some good examples. USAID Uganda urges implementing partner teams to do personality tests to bring greater self-knowledge and understand team strengths and blind spots. USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives has an informal check-in with teams after the start-up period and a management review within the first six months to ensure roles and responsibilities are clear and teams are working well. For OTI, it is a lesson learned that you can’t assume everything will be fine — teams and individuals need tending and review.

Traditional leadership development programs tend to focus solely on developing the skills of a top few, and they tend to be rather “one size fits all,” but each organization is unique, and their situations are dynamic. Stronger programs will bring together people from across an organization who learn to solve problems together and to create space for others to learn and collaborate. Getting it right is all the more difficult in complex, pluralistic organizations and those strongly influenced by external forces. This is exactly the international development context. In fact, our leadership needs to be supraorganizational. We have to influence myriad forces outside our own organizations, rally them to our causes, and balance external pressures with internal pressures, ensuring that (sometimes competing) interests are satisfied.

Over the next month, Devex, together with our partners the Career Development Roundtable and UNFPA, will take a look at how human resources can be a real driver for innovation, efficiency, and impact in global development. Join us as we share the people and ideas leading the next generation of HR by tagging #HRLeads.

About the author

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    Suzanne Bond Hinsz

    Suzanne Bond Hinsz is a technical director with MSI, focusing on organizational development and public sector management. An international development expert for over 20 years, she has advised the United States National Security Council, House Foreign Affairs Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the State Department, USAID, Fortune 100 companies, governments, the United Nations, regional bodies, and grassroots organizations on a wide range of initiatives in more than 30 countries. She received her M.A. in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and holds a CPT designation from the International Society for Performance Improvement.