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Adapting Our Leadership Styles to Real-World Challenges

A UNICEF leader reflects on what he learned at Harvard

July 20, 2015
Adapting Our Leadership Styles to Real-World Challenges

I am not an educationalist, but I connect naturally with issues of education and early childhood development, out of a conviction that providing every child with quality learning is a life-shifting experience. The Equity, Quality and Leadership in Education (EQL) course at Harvard had intrigued me, but I thought that it was a technical course primarily oriented to our superb education officers and advisors.  Having done my fair share of senior leadership courses, I decided to take the plunge with EQL, not really knowing what to expect, but hopeful that it would help me pack some useful technical concepts under my somewhat generalist belt.

I was wrong.  

From the very first day at the Graduate School of Education, the experience was in a completely different league. EQL is a mind-feeding leadership challenge, nothing like the technical, passive course I had half-expected. It is fast-paced and demanding, and it requires a concentrated effort to keep pace. The flip side is the exposure to some of the brightest global academic and practitioner minds, concerned with the same problems that drive us at UNICEF — the identification of innovative solutions to the thorny problems that prevent children from full enjoyment of opportunities. EQL doesn’t give you answers to these problems, but, in my case, it equipped me with a knowledge of how to formulate the right questions through different policy analysis models, with constant reference to my leadership role: Am I a passive spectator in public policy formulation or do my voice and advocacy have greater reach than what I surmise? Are the solutions largely technical? Perhaps. Political? Sometimes. I learned that focusing too much on one or the other usually yields incomplete solutions.

The rapid pace of change on the complex, competitive stage of international development — similar to what Heifetz and Laurie term “radically altered environments” in their landmark 1997 article “The Work of Leadership” — obligates UNICEF to prepare its leaders to solve stubborn problems by combining sound policy analysis and political mapping. All the time, it must buttress that work through a steady investment in innovation.

There is no shortage of policy analysis models or approaches, and UNICEF has its fair share. The key is the ability to identify previously untapped opportunities that, once liberated, may actually generate tremendous spaces for policy improvements for children. But as I have learned, no public policy, nor its analysis, is free of politics. Understanding the drivers and actors behind resource allocation and legislative reforms is as important as having clarity on the best policy options. I will admit that I have generally kept myself distant from the political economy of our work, naively assuming that a proven, cost-effective technical solution is the answer. But I have realized — and EQL helped crystallize — that our work is also about mapping our supporters and detractors, and that UNICEF is skilled at bringing them closer together.

My principal EQL takeaway for UNICEF is threefold:

  • Our fundamental role is advocacy; therefore, policy advocacy naturally follows.
  • This requires a full understanding of the adaptive challenges in our work, e.g. how to solve big problems in altered contexts.
  • Our collective leadership must be embedded with the skills to respond to these challenges.

In short, EQL is certainly about education, but it is mostly about educating UNICEF’s leaders to be better policy leaders and advocates.  As such, it is a hidden gem in UNICEF’s arsenal of executive education opportunities that I strongly recommend.

About the Author

Gordon Jonathan Lewis
Gordon Jonathan Lewis is the UNICEF Representative in El Salvador.
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