Transformative leadership in international organizations
– How far are we?

Article by SDA Bocconi

Effective leadership is fundamental to strengthen international organizations’ (IOs’) relevance. In 2017, the UN System Chief Executive Board for Coordination issued a comprehensive ‘blueprint’ for leadership tailored to IOs’ unique institutional and operational characteristics. To understand the potential of the framework as trigger for change, and to stimulate further discussion on how to best use such tool going forward, SDA Bocconi surveyed a large group of HR management professionals and AHRMIO members.

The eight fundamental characteristics of UN leadership described in the framework are: norm-based, principled, inclusive, accountable, multi-dimensional, transformational, collaborative and self-applied. Of these, ‘norm-based’ and ‘principled’ were considered the most consolidated and practiced, but also not sufficient by themselves to make the difference. ‘Multi-dimensional’ and ‘transformational’ were the leadership characteristics considered most thought provoking and able to sparkle management discussions around leadership. Those are also the ones where organizations seem less mature. 

A multi-dimensional leadership is thought to be crucial to effectively bridge across sectors and build sustainable, long-term solutions for complex problems, where IOs and HR managers place themselves as catalysts and capacity builders. This goes together with the ongoing evolution of the skillset and professional profile of managers, especially in the field, from ‘implementers’ to ‘capacity builders’. 

‘Transformational Leadership’ (TL) was expected to be considered as a crucial characteristic, but is also known as one of the abused buzz words in this field. Therefore, researchers wanted to understand what HR professionals believe is the essence of this type of leadership, and where it applies most appropriately.

The emerging perception is that TL is about inspiring stakeholders within and outside the organization towards a clear strategic vision, to be pursued in a collaborative way. It is a leadership that starts from role modelling, empowers others and seeks collaboration. As such, TL should be applied to strengthening programmatic focus on areas of true competitive advantage, integrate approaches to problems in a sustainable way and fine tuning the ‘business model’ of organizations to achieve operational excellence. A paradigmatic, or ‘transformative’, type of change rather than a step-approach seems to be needed in these areas.

Respondents believe that the number one obstacle to TL is ‘entrenched thinking’, while cynicism is widespread but does not seem to severely impact morale or effectiveness of change agents. This type of thinking leads to lack of understanding, or empathy, for change makers and their ideas, which eventually transforms into open opposition and active disruption attempts.

Therefore, the areas of greater impact to facilitate acceptance of TL are improving self-awareness and reflection, highlight cases where TL was successful and encourage a ‘controlled’ risk-taking approach.

The three concrete actions – emerging from the survey and face-to-face interviews – on how to make TL work in practice and hot to strengthen change capabilities adopting Strategic HR management are:

  • make ‘wannabe leaders’ understand that change begins with me – there is no waiting and see which would lead to transformation;
  • support a transition from an on-off switch mentality to a resilience-oriented leadership, which withstands the frustration of non-linear change processes;
  • breath-in Transformational Leadership in the organization through visibility, non-material rewards and encouraging tone from the top, thus creating a reinforcing narrative for it.
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