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Two decades of questionable leadership

Leadership in the Aid Sector: raising leadership quality to reduce abuses

Von Sima Newell and Laurence Methot

The aid and development sector has been plagued with public allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual harassment and assault, as well as professional harssment and abuse of power. Drawing on multi-sectoral research in leadership, it becomes quickly apparent that the leadership practices of just two decades ago, which are still widely relied upon – to ensure controls, protection and compliance – consistently result in poorer overall organizational performance in a world and economies that are increasingly interconnected and complex. In fact, the opposite leadership style (authentic, compassionate, empathetic, innovative, candid and courageous) creates psychological safety in organizations, which both drives top performance and lowers unsafe workplace practices, including abuses. This paper provides a summary review of the modern leadership literature noting in particular the complexity of the HIV arena and the resulting imperative for improvement in leadership approaches.

Leadership in the Aid Sector: raising leadership quality to reduce abuses

#metoo. Photo: © Mihai Surdu - from unsplash


In 2018, sexual harassment and abuses of power took a significant turn in the spotlight across the aid sector, with prestigious organisations including Oxfam, Save the Children, Amnesty International, and the United Nations all coming under intestine scrutiny, following allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, as well as professional harassment and abuse of power.

In the HIV and AIDS arena, it was the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) that came particularly to the public’s attention, culminating in December 2018 with a report commissioned by the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board from an Independent Expert Panel on the Prevention of and Response to Harassment, Including Sexual Harassment, Bullying and Abuse of Power at the UNAIDS Secretariat, exposing serious flaws in leadership and a pervasive toxic culture. Laurie Garrett summarized the crux of the irony in an opinion piece published on CNN, in the days following the release of the Panel’s report:

“It's a hypocrisy so heinous it seems at first glance unbelievable. UNAIDS, an organization that works to stop the spread of HIV worldwide by promoting safe sex, female empowerment and human rights is, itself, a cesspool of gender intolerance, sexual harassment and bullying, according to a new report issued by an independent panel of experts December 7.”

And while much of the subsequent narrative has been focused on what organisations have been doing wrong, little attention has been given to what needs to be done right, especially with respect to the depth of change for leadership in the aid sector. Indeed, there is a gap in the dialogue. In one arena, specialists in gender and women’s rights have taken a lead to highlight the needs for safer reporting and greater accountability of sexual and gender-based harassment, assaults and violence on the one hand. Separately, experts in business leadership have been publishing research with critical insights into both what top leadership practices entail, and as a consequence, the causes and remedies of workplace abuses (which often stem from outdated, autocratic leadership practices).

In effect, while there are two worldviews across the private and public sectors, the solution of ensuring improved and top-quality leadership is a common one across workplaces, industries and sectors. While the means, motivations and targets may differ, the root causes of any abuse of power (including sexual harassment and assault) are too often the same, irrespective of the sector. Given the authors’ unique cross-sectoral background, we bring forward those aspects of leadership most relevant to the international development sector, focusing in particular on the leadership attributes that drive excellence across the board, and which simultaneously drive down the incidence of workplace abuses.

To this end, we draw on the work of eight researchers who have described the highs and lows of organizations and their leadership: Robert Anderson, William Adams, Frederic Laloux, Fred Kiel, Adam Grant, Nicolas Bouzou, Julia de Funès, and Amy Edmonson.

Birds. Photo: © Manuel - from unsplash


Leading through change & complexity

A review of modern literature on leadership yields some surprising information:  top leadership practices – those which consistently correlate with best business results – also drive down the incidence of abuses. In examining the work of seven authors who examine top leadership practices internationally, we find the following:

  • In their book, Mastering Leadership, Robert Anderson and William Adams present two decades of international research (including in North & South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia), across thousands of organizations, idenitfying the leadership behaviours that foster the highest performance (“Creative leadership”), and those that correlate directly with negative business results (“Reactive leadership”). They note that 75% of organizations – the vast majority, are still led from a Reactive mindset.
  • Fred Kiel’s research on the Return on Character in the executive leadership suite unveils a similar spectrum of leadership qualities. His work shows that high-character CEOs, whom he refers to as “virtuoso CEOs”, have a return on assets five times higher than low-character CEOs (which Kiel describes in his TEDx talk as “almost psychopaths”, joking that real psychopaths would never participate in his research).
  • French economist Nicolas Bouzou and philosopher and consultant Julia de Funès find similar results which they describe in La comédie (in)humaine, comment les entreprises font fuir les meilleurs (The (In)human Comedy: how Companies Drive the Best Away). One of their key findings is the need to give back a sense of value, purpose and self-worth to employees.
  • In Give and Take, Wharton professor of organizational psychology, Adam Grant, exposes his research on three types of people, and their “reciprocity styles” in the workplace: “givers”, “takers” and “matchers”. Grant found two interesting things. First, that the lowest performing staff were givers. And second, that the very top leaders, the virtuoso CEOs, to borrow from Kiel, were: also givers.  Grant explores the traits of these top-performing successful givers, and what distinguishes them.
  • Finally, in Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux (who holds an MBA from INSEAD and was a former Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company) describes the evolution of human organizations throughout history and identifies an emergent organization type, which has evolved into a self-managing organization, which he calls “Evolutionary-Teal”. Such organizations achieve exceptional results.

What is striking is the similarity of these authors’ descriptions of the top-performers and the lower performers in their research, summarized in Table 1.

High-performance vs poor-performance leadershiop attributes (Table 1)

High-performance leadership attributes Poor-performance leadership attributes

Anderson & Adams










Fred Kiel









Adam Grant

Successful “otherish” givers




Put needs of group ahead of own

Low ego



Deferential to superiors (Fakers)



AND self-sacrificing givers

Frederic Laloux

Purpose driven



Self-organizing teams

Disengaged from ego


Look good

Fit in



Bouzou & de Funes







Purpose & mission driven






Decisions couched behind concepts

Absolute loyalty, obedience & compliance

It is easy to observe that the characteristics of top-performing leaders – that is those that achieve the highest results – would also the characteristics that drive down abuses (Figure 1). Abusers thrive in hierarchical, controlling, self-serving and self-focused leadership environments. They are naturally driven away from and by leaders who are compassionate, authentic, courageous, and candid. This hypothesis has been confirmed by Amy Edmonson in her research on Psychological Safety, as we will see in the next section.

High performance workplaces naturally disincentive abusers (Figure 1) 


Psychological safety: top measure of team performance

Amy Edmonson is a Harvard Professor of Leadership and Management.  She has researched psychological safety for twenty years, and in late 2018 published a book, entitled The Fearless Organization Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. Edmonson defines psychological safety as “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Psychological safety, she explains, is about the ability to speak up, promoting a climate of trust and respect in the workplace. Importantly, it is about fostering candor, and an environment of open and authentic communication.  Her research and that of others industry experts has shown that it is psychological safety within a team or group that is the single most important indicator of top performance and achieving results by that team or group.

4.1 Psychological safety helps navigate complexity

Just as Andersen and Adams observed that Creative leadership approaches supported organizations to deal better with complexity, Edmonson notes that “The experience of having a question or an idea and not feeling able to share it can be deeply unsatisfying at work. And it is a serious risk factor in any company facing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity or ‘VUCA’.”  Indeed, the ability to speak up is critical in times of rapid change and high-uncertainty where different people have different information and experience to contribute to a rapidly evolving situation.

The aid sector, and the United Nations system organizations, operate entirely in a VUCA environment, from the geo-political uncertainties underpinning development work, to the internal complexity of working collaboratively across possibly the most diverse geographical and cultural stage of any organizations in the world.  Addressing HIV/AIDS is entirely a VUCA undertaking, with the complexity of battling stigma, reaching and supporting vulnerable (and sometimes criminalized) populations, and fostering fundamental culture shifts to reach 90-90-90 targets. Thus, developing and ensuring psychological safety is critical to the success in these arenas.

Man & steps. Photo: © Yang Miao - from unsplash


4.2 Low psychological safety: fear driven workplaces

Motivation by fear, Edmonson explains, has its history in twentieth-century industries that thrived on individual contributions, echoing Bouzou and de Funès.  At that time, individuals could be motivated by the fear of losing their jobs, or not getting a bonus or a raise or a promotion.  However, in the knowledge economy and a VUCA environment, fear loses its value as a motivator. ‘What many people do not realize,” Edmonson writes, “is that motivation by fear is indeed highly effective – effective at creating the illusion that goals are being achieved. It is not effective in ensuring that people bring the creativity, good process, and passion needed to accomplish challenging goals in knowledge intensive workplaces.”

While it is clear that aid and development organizations operate in some of the most complex, rapidly and unpredictably changing environments on Earth, there is significant evidence of a lack of psychological safety, especially in the UN system. A 2018 Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) report on whistleblower policies and practices in the UN system, for example, indicated that “Of the respondents to the global staff survey, 60.4 per cent either believed that reporting on a superior would impact their career and/or performance appraisal or were unsure … there was retaliation in all but one of the cases studied by JIU involving reporting on someone at a higher level, and more than half the complainants either left the organization or had their contracts terminated.”

Following a late 2018 survey of UN staff on sexual harassment that received only a 17.1% response rate showing that one-third of staff had experienced sexual harassment, the Secretary General himself noted “an ongoing sense of mistrust, perceptions of inaction and lack of accountability” – all signs of a psychologically unsafe environment.

The report of the UNAIDS Independent Expert Panel made repeated notes of what could only be described as a lack of psychological safety within UNAIDS. Examples include:

  • “Staff report that … some supervisors use what Norwegian psychologist Berit Ås has identified as five suppression techniques.” (Para. 88)
  • “The fear expressed by staff was accompanied by a lack of trust in those whom they would have to approach to make an informal complaint or to seek advice, so that even to embark upon an ‘informal’ complaint required courage.” (Para.11)
  • “There is a fear that anyone speaking up against abuse of office, bullying or harassment will themselves become the victim: exclusion from the work group, isolation, exposure, contracts not renewed, ostracised and passed over.” (Para. 89)

Contrary to the examples above, in a psychologically safe environment, Edmoson notes that employees “feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed.” She also specifically addresses whistleblowing noting that it “is not a reflection of psychological safety, but rather an indication of its absence. In companies with psychological safety, whistleblowing should not be needed because employees concerns will be expressed, heard and considered. Speaking up and listening, which go hand in hand in a healthy organizational culture, reinforce standards of professionalism and integrity. When valid concerns are expressed, changes can be made in a timely way.” 

These examples show how far the UN system needs to come in terms of leadership that actively fosters psychological safety, and shows more characteristics of top-performing leadership as identified by modern researchers, including those cited above. The benefits are both a lowering of abuses and a simultaneous opportunity to improve results through such higher-performance leadership.

Signposts. Photo: © Javier Allegue Barros - from unsplash


Summary and conclusion

By distilling the essence of high-performance leadership from various research, we see that the characteristics of high-performance leadership also are those that foster psychological safety and lower workplace abuses. In particular:

  1. Just one generation ago, work practices included a need for hierarchy, oversight and control, to achieve clear goals for work that was much more individually focused.
  2. In the current era – one of constant change, global connectivity, increasing complexity, uncertainty, volatility and ambiguity, and with an unprecedented demand for effective teamwork and collaboration – the leadership modus operandi of twenty years ago is no longer effective. Older leaders bring their best forward, when the techniques they were taught, explicitly or tacitly, and have embraced successfully for quite some time, no longer yield top results.
  3. Top leaders in the modern age foster psychological safety. Their styles have common attributes, including empathy, compassion, purpose-driven motivation, listening and candor. Conversely, a lack of psychological safety engenders environments where abusers are easily protected and even promoted.
  4. Top leadership traits can be developed – typically through mentorship and coaching.

For the aid and development sector, it is therefore important to take a considered look at bringing leadership practices up to date, and to invest in leadership development at all levels. The risks of not embracing a fundamental shift in the expectations of leadership styles and approaches to be more collaborative, authentic, candid, and compassionate are multifold, and include:

  • Losing the ability to effect change and achieve missions over time as leadership abilities do not keep pace with the rates of change and the knowledge economy;
  • Losing public credibility and longer-term reputational damage;
  • Never effectively or meaningfully addressing the heinous instances of sexual exploitation and abuse or internal staff assaults, harassment and abuse of power;
  • If abuses are seen publicly to go unpunished, the sector risks becoming a magnet for predators and abusers seeking unfettered access to vulnerable targets, including children.

Whereas the private sector is often focused on finance, however, the advantage in laying the groundwork for improving leadership in aid and development sector, is that this arena inherently attracts people with giving tendencies, and there is a natural alignment between organizations’ core stated missions and the attributes sought for top leaders: including compassion, authenticity, empathy, and a sense of purpose. More particularly, In the fight against HIV, the underlying sense of purpose has always been very strong and tangible throughout the community.  If we can accept that current leadership practices may have been effective not so long ago, but are losing their edge, then we may also recognize that fostering top-performing leadership in this sector can simultaneously accelerate the missions of organizations in today’s interconnected world, and drive down significantly the incidence of internal and external abuses which are so troubling in this sector.

Link to the full-length paper from Rethink Performance: HERE


Sima Newell and Laurence Methot

Sima Newell, M.Eng. is the co-founder of Rethink Performance Sàrl, a Swiss organization providing executive coaching and professional development programmes. Ms Newell was previously Chief Inormation Officer at UNAIDS and spent two decades in various organizations of the United Nations system. She is fluent in English and French.

Laurence Methot
, PhD, co-founded Rethink Performance Sàrl to help companies unleash the full potential of their internal talent. Previously she worked in Fortune 500 companies and is a certified professional coach, focusing on leadership. Ms Methot is fluent in French, English, German and Italian.


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