The very first DSJ issue a year ago covered the topic of leadership. As a fluid concept, leadership is very difficult to pin down, and even more difficult to teach. Most research effort has gone into what leadership signifies in the corporate world. The meaning of leadership in humanitarian crisis, on the other hand, is an emerging field, and it is essential that humanitarian leadership should be discussed. Why? Almost all evaluation reports on disaster response discern the lack of leadership as the biggest problem. The failure of humanitarian assistance may have been excused in the beginnings of large-scale responses, i.e. following the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Lessons were learnt and the response mechanism constantly evolved, but when the devastating tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004 the humanitarian reaction was nothing short of embarrassingly poor. Consequently, the United Nations commissioned a report and implemented the so-called cluster system in order to improve coordination and coherence among the myriad of humanitarian actors swarming in after every emergency. But still the biggest lament in the evaluation of the Haiti earthquake was – surprise, surprise – the lack of leadership. And it does not look like the situation is going to improve anytime soon.
Against this backdrop, the organisers of the GLOBE Leadership Seminar sought to raise awareness among aspiring humanitarians and invited 25 participants with very diverse backgrounds: students from the Fletcher School in Boston, from the University of St. Gallen and from CEIBS in Shanghai as well as field staff from the ICRC. Braced for a super intense week of lectures and workshops, the participants started off in St. Gallen with more theoretical inputs on leadership, governance, negotiations and teamwork. With the exception of a short stop-over at the headquarters of the ICRC in Geneva, the rest of the GLOBE seminar took place in the European Centre of Tufts University in Talloires, a picturesque town in the French Alps. For one part, there were speeches from inspiring stakeholders driven to improve disaster response through extremely various approaches be it technology, a more efficient cooperation with the military, or private sector involvement. For the other part, participants were divided into groups and asked to develop a ‘code of leadership’ and a corresponding training programme.
The GLOBE seminar did not reinvent the wheel – it neither revolutionised the approach towards disaster response nor found the Holy Grail to humanitarian leadership. First and foremost, the GLOBE was an amazing enriching and instructive experience for all participants on a personal, academic and professional level. Additionally, some important lessons that are valid even outside the humanitarian context were stressed, for example that in order to be a good leader one has to be able to follow. Nonetheless, a lot of unanswered questions remained in the end: how do you reconcile risk-taking and accountability in the decision-making process? Where exactly is the line between disaster management and leadership? Is humanitarian leadership really that different – if at all – from leadership in other contexts?