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As women leaders it is becoming more frequent that, in this age of uncertainty, we are called upon to operate in crises that we are not particularly used to dealing with in the UN system. Problems that we are familiar with often relate to humanitarian issues, food insecurity, civil war, and peacekeeping. However, since the beginning of this century, we have had to deal with health crises that we were totally unprepared for. These continue to test us, not just as leaders, but as human beings.
Today we are faced with a global virus – unprecedented – the COVID 19. How do we, as women leaders, cope, manage, but most crucially lead in times of crisis? I have particularly been faced with this challenge in early 2014, and I have resolved that, in order for me to overcome this period, it is important that I draw from my past experiences.
The current situation is reminiscent of my experience with having to deal with the Ebola crisis in 2014 as Deputy Director of the UNDP Africa Bureau. It started very small in February 2014, with one RC asking what budget they could use to buy soap, buckets, and sanitizer. At the time, the question was strange - then the RC next door started asking a similar question, and before we knew it, we were faced with a disease that did not respect borders.
Being in New York at the beginning of the crisis meant I was still too far from the “battleground”. As such, it was still not as real to me, as it was to my colleagues in the three country offices. In fact, the reality of the situation only hit me when the RC of Sierra Leone asked – “What do I do if one of our staff has Ebola?” I was dumbstruck and couldn’t answer – because at that time there wasn’t an answer. As a UN system we had not yet understood the gravity of the situation, and the danger it presented to the populations we served and our staff. With time, we organized ourselves as a system, to ensure duty of care to our staff. But I would like to share with you what has helped me, as a leader, to go through the crisis. I hope this will provide you with four solid tips during this time of uncertainty.
1. Stay calm
First and foremost there is always an element of fear, and this is normal because the unknown can be daunting. Often times both you and your staff members are scared. On this particular mission, I remember a government representative in Liberia saying – “In the time of war we knew who the enemy was, and we had the arms to fight them – now we don’t know the enemy – it does not have a shape or form.” Even in light of this invisible enemy, we remained calm and resolute. So the first and most important take away for fellow women leaders is to remember to stay calm, and not panic. Your staff looks up to you, especially in times of crisis.
2. Collaborate with others
Secondly, remember you are not alone – and you need to reach out to your colleagues, your supervisors, your staff and others. Communication and transparency are key during such times. So be sure to inform your staff of what you know, and what you don’t know, so you can leverage off of each other’s expertise. You will not always have an answer, but if you engage with co-collaborators and advise your team on action steps, you provide a sense of comfort to those around you. This inevitably creates trust and makes the process easier.
3. Coordination is vital
Thirdly remember to co-ordinate your efforts. While it was great that everyone wanted to help during the Ebola crisis, we found ourselves stepping on each other’s toes. My learnings from this were that, it is important to ensure that you coordinate with other actors. In our context these can include the UN system, donors, or other partners. Co-ordination allows for better efficiency and ensures that duplication is avoided. In doing this, you build comparative advantage for the agency and everyone involved.
4. Reinforce a sense of connection across the UN system
Last but not least, in times of crisis reinforcing a sense of connection and belonging across the UN system is essential. At the outset of the Ebola emergency, we had organized a high-level visit to the country offices. I vividly remember how appreciative all staff members were to receive a visit from the headquarters. The message was warmly received: you are not alone in fears and worries. A sense of belonging to the broader UN system helps to anchor our difficult work in times of crisis.
As we navigate our way through this time of uncertainty, my message to the Leadership, Women and the UN Alumnae Community, is for us to remain strong during this time. Let us also remember to draw from the wealth of knowledge we have gained from dealing with other crises.