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For the first time in humanity’s history, we live in a world where all countries are committed to a global action plan for people, prosperity and the planet – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Implementing sustainable development means finding solutions for what can be referred to as wicked problems – complex, non-linear, dynamic challenges in situations of insufficient resources, incomplete information, emerging risks and threats, and fast changing environments. There is no blueprint to follow in order to address the current challenges. Solutions need to be discovered, developed, invented and re-invented from scratch in most cases. This holds true for countries at all stages of development. There is no one-size-fits-all solution – there is a multiplicity of solutions.
Selecting one or combining several solutions requires a deep understanding of potential synergies and trade-offs, as well as positive and negative spill-overs. Designing these solutions requires a profound understanding of how different but interconnected systems – economic, environmental, social, political, technological – affect and change each other. It requires an understanding of leverage points and how their use within one system brings changes to a higher level of development. This is based on the ability of those around the table to ask critical questions about development pathways and see commonalities among key issues.
The 2030 Agenda promises us a better world by 2030. The future, however, will hold many unexpected twists and turns on the road to sustainable development. The scale and speed of change in the current world requires us to understand and work with multiple future scenarios. This requires developing an ability to use, benefit and multiply emerging opportunities, as well as to prevent, manage and adapt to multiple risks and threats for medium- and long-term future.
‘The challenges that confront us in the twenty-first century will not be met by mere deference to power, reliance on a shaky status quo or operation in old silos. Rather, they demand a model of leadership that is norm-based, principled, inclusive, accountable, multi-dimensional, transformational, collaborative and self-applied. That is, a United Nations leadership model.’
~United Nations system leadership model~
The challenges to achieve this ambitious promise are enormous and the United Nations has never before been more needed by its Member States than now. The ongoing UN development system repositioning process calls for a new set of attributes for the UN leadership – impactful, adaptive, purposeful, holistic, and agile – to effectively lead the organisation to deliver results at the scale and pace required to help the countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
So, what do the UN staff need to know to become impactful, purposeful, and agile UN leaders to help the countries achieve the promise of the 2030 Agenda?
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Systems Thinking
2030 Agenda demands new approaches to knowledge and skills development for all actors. It requires holistic thinking, moving beyond separate mandates and structures and exploring linkages between different thematic issues. Implementing sustainable development means finding solutions for what can be referred to as wicked problems – complex, non-linear, dynamic challenges in situations of insufficient resources, incomplete information, emerging risks and threats, and fast changing environments. Designing one or combining several solutions requires a deep understanding of potential synergies and trade-offs, as well as positive and negative spill-overs. Designing these solutions requires a profound understanding of how different but interconnected systems – economic, environmental, social, political, technological – affect and change each other. It requires an understanding of leverage points and how their use within one system brings changes to a higher level of development. This is based on the ability of those around the table to ask critical questions about development pathways and see commonalities among key issues.
Working together for the 2030 Agenda
In addition to the profound knowledge of various sectors and their interconnections, implementing the solutions will also require different implementation approaches and shifted mind-sets, as well the ability to work together in a new way. Acting together is key. As self-evident and simple as it may seem, it is not easy. The skills that are critical for success include understanding of open and subtle forces that drive individuals and groups – their aspirations, values and norms, emotional, psychological and social factors – and ability to design and participate in development discussions and processes. This requires understanding of how team members and their diverse interests impact teams, how inclusive and holistic perspectives can bring about additional positive impacts, and how these achievements can be sustained in the long-run. This skillset is necessary and vital for all UN staff – those with formal power and authority and those without them.
Agile thinking and future-proofing to implement the 2030 Agenda
The 2030 Agenda promises us a better world by 2030. The scale and speed of change in the current world requires the ability to quickly adapt to and absorb innovative technological breakthroughs and abrupt changes alike. Artificial intelligence and robotics, aging populations and demographic changes, geopolitical shifts, blockchain technologies and cyber security, unprecedented levels of urbanisation and climate change. Interconnections and interplays between many of these drivers are uncertain and unclear. This makes it almost impossible to predict the outcomes of development interventions in the longer run.
The ability to think agile and to understand and work with multiple future scenarios is crucial for any long-term development success. This requires developing an ability to see and understand the long-standing and emerging trends and forces that drive transformational changes and disrupt international and domestic politics, destroy whole sectors of economies and re-shape daily lives of millions of people across the globe. Combined with a focus on strategic futures analysis techniques, it is the only way to become future-ready.
Theories of leadership development
The topic of leadership – starting from common attributes, traits, styles, skills and knowledge of “good” leaders – has received a lot of attention in academic circles since Carlyle’s 1841 work on the Great Man Theory. As the world changed, the theories and perspectives on what it means and takes to be a “good” leader changed. While there are geo-cultural differences in what people around the world see as the most valuable traits and attributes, some leadership traits can be referred to as “universal” or “global.” The World Economic Forum’s Global Leadership Index identifies global perspective and collaboration as the two skills appearing among the top three choices for every region of the world.Having the global mind-set requires, according to Javidan (2010):
- Intellectual capital: Global business savvy, cognitive complexity, cosmopolitan outlook
- Psychological capital: Passion for diversity, quest for adventure, self-assurance
- Social capital: Intercultural empathy, interpersonal impact, diplomacy
It also means, according to other researchers, future-fitness or sustainability-fitness. As Visser and Courtice (2011) put it: “A sustainability leader is someone who inspires and supports action towards a better world.”
Collaborative or team-oriented leadership, according to the GLOBE study, includes five leadership subscales:
- collaborative team orientation;
- team integrator;
- malevolent (reverse-scored);
- administratively competent.
Alongside the evolution of the theories of leadership, learning approaches have also evolved, with more preference given to constructivist and transformative learning approaches. Structural learning approaches are still used, but in a limited ratio compared to experiential learning: 10:20:70, where 10% accounts for structured learning, 20% for learning from others, and 70% for learning from experience through workplace integration.
Constructivist and transformative theories of learning encourage reflection, inquiry and practice. The objective is to invite leaders to become aware of their biases, construct new models of behaviour, and become more self-aware. A critical element of it is reflection on learning, which comes from Kolb’s (1984) learning cycle: concrete experience – reflective observation – abstract conceptualisation – active experimentation. In 2015, Seijts “upgraded” it with a range of pathways towards learning, such as learning from failure, self-awareness, adaptability, and continual learning.
There is almost universal agreement in modern theories of leadership development is that the ability to be a good leader can be learned
This idea lies at the heart of the new UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable programme for mid-level UN staff aspiring to prepare for the critical transition to a greater leadership role in supporting transformative processes at country, regional and global levels.
The new “Learning to Lead: Transitioning to Adaptive Sustainable Development Leadership” programme aims to strengthen political acumen and broaden the participants’ scope of vision to prepare them for more strategic roles to support the achievement of nationally owned sustainable development solutions. It strengthens collaboration for sustainable development, provides opportunities to practice substantive leadership skills to engage and influence stakeholders and to become transformative change agents. Through the programme, the UN staff who are aspiring to take on the UN leadership roles will be able to develop a more profound understanding of the paradigmatic shift required by the 2030 Agenda and the changing role of the UN, as well as harness their own competencies and skills to make the necessary transition into roles of greater responsibility.
To learn more about this programme, watch this video and register by 11 June 2019 at https://www.unssc.org/learning-lead-transitioning-adaptive-sustainable-development-leadership/.
1 Newport, F. and Harter, J. (2016). Presidential candidate as leaders: the public’s view. Gallup, March 13.
Gupta, A.K., Govindarajan, V. & Wang, H. (2008) The quest for global dominance. London: Josey-Bass.
Rost, J. (1991). Leadership in the twenty-first century. Westport, CT: Praeger.
2 World Economic Forum (2014). Global Leadership Index: Survey on the global agenda. Geneva
3 For a good review of this survey and related traits see University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). A report commissioned by the British Council. (2017, June) Global Definitions of Leadership and Theories of Leadership Development: Literature Review. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.
4 Javidan, M. 2010. Bringing the global mindset to leadership. Harvard Business Review, May 19
5 Visser, W. and Courtice, P. (2011). Sustainability Leadership: Linking Theory and Practice. SSRN Working Paper Series, 21 October.
6 Chhokar, J.S., Brodbeck, F.C. and House, R.J., (eds.), (2013). Culture and leadership across the world: the GLOBE book of in-depth studies of 25 societies. London: Routledge.