Learning From Leaders In A Conflict Zone

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Title: Learning from leaders in a conflict zone: A psychoanalytical inquiry into leadership within an international non governmental development aid context, embracing themes of: leading in times of crisis, political unrest, personal, tribal or national vulnerable
Year: 2016
Authors: Rachel Ellison

This research asked two questions:

1. International non governmental development aid: What does it take to be an effective global leader, working with crisis, uncertainty, ambiguity and vulnerability?

2. What can commercial leaders, working in the relative safety of their offices in West, learn from Third Sector leaders, facing such extremes of stress, distress, cultural, organisational and ethical dilemmas?

In a series of powerful, personal leadership stories from Africa, Asia, Central America and the USA, I ask what might commercial and public sector bosses in the West, learn from leaders working for an international non-governmental development organization?

All leaders are working across multiple different cultural, national and/or political contexts, simultaneously.

I also contribute my own experience of leadership dilemmas and systemic cultural context, from my time working in broadcasting and humanitarian aid, in a Category 1 war zone: Afghanistan.

Here are some leadership examples, psychoanalytic analysis and themes, drawn from my Paper:

• SOMALIA: Ego free leadership under violent seige; tribal roots informing leadership decisions during an emergency, where there are different rules for local versus international staff.

• AFGHANISTAN: Tempering what you demand and expect from staff working in harrowing, stressful and destabilising conditions. Values-based management. Bringing deep empathy to traumatised staff, whilst managing your own emotions when far from home. Questionning what are you rewarding - do you keep paying and empowering the female employee, subjected to domestic violence at home by an out of work husband…or are you, the boss, actually contributing to a dangerous situation?

• HONDURAS: 'Everything in Honduras is solved by killing…a dispute over property, an argument with a neighbour…there is narcotraffic and kidnap.' For whom and how are you prepared to speak up, as a leader?

• CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: 'But will HQ in New York say ''yes''?'…the tug of office politics versus the pull of humanitarian need. How do you serve your customers - vulnerable children and raped women - and not loose sight of the big policy picture?

• USA: 'Passion and compassion, embrace and adapt, communicate and excite' - how there is humanitarian work to be done in commercial organisations where career and family sacrifice can result in burnout and failure of ethics.

• SENEGAL: Where political faction, family and face can hold a team leader 'hostage'; How national conflict may be playing out in your team and where everything you do, and everything you don't do, sends a signal.

The paper embraces the following themes:

• working across multiple different tribal, regional, national and international cultures simultaneously
• self-knowing leadership and attempts by values-led leaders to lead ethically, whilst acknowledging complex, political and sometimes conflicting realities
• dialogue, conflict resolution and delivering a difference to impoverished children
• these case studies emerged from interviews and coaching conversations, seeking to be ethically sound leaders and role models to future leaders
• working with extremes of ambiguity and instability


I encourage leaders and practitioners from across different disciplines, to reflect on what inspires you about these leadership stories. To ask questions of yourself and your organization. To challenge yourself to lead differently and more effectively - from an ethical and a profits perspective.

Language: English

Date: 06/25/2016
Location: Granada, Spain
Name of Event/Conference: 33rd ISPSO Annual Meeting
Sponsoring Organization: ISPSO

Submitted by:
Rachel Ellison

Corresponding author: Rachel Ellison

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