Against All Odds: What Successful Leadership Looks Like in the Humanitarian Sector

Leadership is a complex and often frustrating experience. Having the ability and poise to sift through endless – and frequently contradictory – information to lead effectively may feel like more of an art than a science. And while leadership in any capacity is difficult, leadership within the humanitarian sector is composed of additional complexities that take it to another level. I’ve had the privilege of working with humanitarian leaders for the past several years, and throughout this experience I have observed several factors that make humanitarian leadership unique:

The environment.

This may be the most obvious factor, but the leaders I work with are located in some of the harshest and most trying circumstances found across the globe. These environments make the demands of leadership unique and more difficult, as leaders frequently need to consider the safety of those they lead. Additionally, these environments are often chaotic with little structure and compressed timelines; decisions can’t wait.

Who am I serving?

Beneficiaries, governments, their leaders, and the organization itself are just a few of the parties humanitarian leaders need to consider when making decisions. The alignment among these stakeholders usually leaves something to be desired and creates enormous tension for leaders; especially for individuals who got into the field just to help others. Further, this misalignment cascades from the upper echelons of these organizations down to junior field leaders.

Limited resources.

Unfortunately, humanitarian need is increasing across the globe and thus, the resources available are being stretched. One of the humanitarian organizations MRG works with has seen steady growth over the past decade and a slowdown is not projected. While the “do more with less” axiom is common, the consequences of falling short in the humanitarian sector means that the stakes are incredibly high.

With this said, you’d think humanitarian leaders would be downtrodden. Yet, I’m here to report I have met some of the most grateful, appreciative, and capable leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with across my career.

If you’re curious about what behaviors make for an effective humanitarian leader, check out our recent Best Practice Report.

About the author

Drew is MRG's resident I/O psychologist. When not at MRG, he's either with his family (most likely) or in his workshop (less likely). His stack of unread books is commendable.

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