15 Indicators Of A (Near) Perfect Humanitarian Leader

Humanitarian Leadership? What is it? Why does it matter?

As a young officer in the Australian Army, I was always taught to look after the soldiers under my command. While undergoing one of many training exercises in the North Queensland jungle, part of my evening routine consisted of visiting each soldier, asking how they were, and examining their bare feet with my hands for signs of infection due to the high humidity and almost non-stop rain. If a soldier’s feet were infected, they were no longer fully functional.

Not that I am suggesting humanitarian leaders look at the bare feet of their aid worker staff, but they must always look after the welfare of those whose care they are in charge of. In the aid world, the mind of the aid worker is the equivalent of the soldier’s feet. If aid workers are going to effectively support communities and people affected by crisis their wellness must be a priority.

Like in any walk of life, in the humanitarian field there are good and bad leaders, just as there are good and bad managers. Although we all respond differently to leaders, most aid workers are very quick to recognise good leadership when they see it. In my mind, leadership is about influencing others to accomplish something they would not otherwise achieve. Delivering an outcome simply by telling people what to do by virtue of a person’s position is not leadership; that is management.

FC Bartlett, in his 1927 book Psychology and the Soldier, described three types of leaders:

-       Institutional: the person who maintains their authority mainly by virtue of the established social prestige attaching to their position;

-       Dominant: the person who maintains their authority mainly by virtue of their personal capacity to impress and dominate his followers; and

-       Persuasive: the person who maintains their authority mainly by virtue of their personal capacity to express and persuade his followers.

As an aid worker, and before that in the military, most leaders I encountered have been of the institutional or dominant varieties. Quite rare was the persuasive leader. Of the three types of leaders, I want my perfect humanitarian leader to be persuasive.  But what would this look like in practice.  Military leaders over the centuries give us some clues:

Xenophon, in 400 BC, wrote about the importance of a leader to keep an “ever a wakeful eye in the interest of those under him.” 

Brigadier Maunsell wrote in 1947 about the need for a leader to know his men well “and be known to them.” He went on to say that a key element of leadership was to gain confidence of those that you lead by being “interested in their welfare,” and “always be cheerful with them, however you may feel.”

Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, in an address to West Point in 1953, said that to be a good leader:

you have got to have complete integrity…You have got to be honest, not only with yourself but with the men you lead and the people with whom you work; and honesty and integrity are things that you cannot compromise…if you do, you will lose confidence and you will not be able to lead…”

He also went on to say that leadership was about people:

“Nothing more radical is suggested here than that the leader who would make certain of the fundamental soundness of his operation cannot do better than concentrate his attention on his men…The art of leading, in operations large or small, is the art of dealing with humanity, of working diligently on behalf of men, of being sympathetic with them…Yet how often do we hear an executive praised as an ‘efficient administrator’ simply because he can keep a desk cleared, even though he is despised by everyone in the lower echelons and cannot command a fraction of their loyalty!”

General Norman Schwarzkopf wrote about the importance of a leader doing “what is right, not what you think the high headquarters wants or what you think will make you look good.” 

General Omar Bradley wrote:

No leader knows it all (although you sometimes find one who seems to think he does!). A leader should encourage the members of his staff to speak up if they think the commander is wrong. He should invite constructive criticism. It is a grave error for the leader to surround himself with a ‘yes’ staff.

Drawing on my experience, and the teachings of famous leaders, here are my 15 indicators to measure what a perfect humanitarian leader would look like:

  1. They articulate a noble vision whose achievement is vital for the communities and people affected by crisis.
  2. They are active and passionate in pursuit of their vision.
  3. They direct all efforts towards the vision and discard activities that work against it.
  4. They convince aid workers that the vision is achievable. 
  5. They instill confidence; aid workers working for them know that no matter what hardship or dangers they face or suffer, they will be looked after. 
  6. They remain calm, polite and always approachable no matter how stressful the situation.
  7. They have integrity; unprofessional, discriminatory or unethical behavior is not tolerated.
  8. They ensure, as far as possible, that aid workers are given the best training, equipment and administrative support for whatever task they are asked to do. 
  9. They ensure that the working and living conditions, as well as the security arrangements of aid workers, are as good as they can be in the circumstances.
  10. They demonstrate to the aid workers they lead, that everyone is always treated fairly, without discrimination or favouritism. 
  11. They always recruit aid workers - at all levels  - solely on the basis of competence and experience; to do to otherwise harms the communities and people we seek to assist.
  12. They sincerely seek out other aid worker’s ideas and expertise; they know they do not know everything. 
  13. They surround themselves with diversity; they encourage subordinates to question their decisions and challenge their thinking.  
  14. They methodically develop, coach and help the aid workers they lead.
  15. And finally, to paraphrase Bruce Clark, when things go wrong they “start searching for the reason in increasingly larger concentric circles around” their own desks."