Humanitarian Leadership: learning from the past and directions for the future

By: John Mitchell | January 2024 | Reports and Policy Briefs



Many of the qualities, attributes and skills possessed by effective humanitarian leaders are not unique to the sector. However, the operational context in which they are applied is unique, and this creates a very particular set of issues.

This paper presents the current landscape of thinking and practice in humanitarian leadership for the 60 senior leaders participating in Tandem, the ODI global executive leadership programme. It reflects on how humanitarian leadership has been understood over the past two decades and outlines key issues and challenges: those we face today and those we will face in the future.

The paper is organised into five parts. The first provides context by distilling some key findings from the literature. Part 2 looks at who leads humanitarian operations today, and Part 3 examines the experiences of leaders in operational teams. Part 4 reviews the experience of leaders in providing protection, and Part 5 introduces systems thinking and explains how it can help bring about strategic improvements to leadership in the longer term. The paper concludes with a personal reflection.


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