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Geneva Seminar in Leadership on Complex Operations

By Karen Guttieri, Marc Ventresca, and Frank Barrett.

“We are a humanitarian agency, we work to build up society and help people; the military destroy things’, said one Fellow, relating an apocryphal quote made by one of his colleagues in a well-known multinational aid agency a few years ago.  One of the other Fellows offered a rejoinder: “I am a humanitarian as well but I use hardpower tools, also in the service of building peace and security.” This point-counterpoint underscores the direct engagement among thirty senior leaders from international agencies and several national militaries, gathered in Geneva this week for the Global Challenges Executive Seminar on Leadership and Cooperation in Complex Operations.

Leading in complex operations, the coalface of strategic work in global conflicts and disasters, is an emerging area of professional practice where executives from international and other aid agencies work with national and military leaders to address both security and humanitarian issues. The work and issues are not new; the recognition of the distinctive challenges for leadership is more recent.

We are faculty affiliated with the Global Public Policy Academic Group at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey CA, USA.  Our group is pioneering both research and executive education on these leadership challenges. We benefit from the counsel of Major General (ret.) H. Buz Atlshuler, Senior Mentor to the Seminar.  Our partner in this Seminar is the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), a highly-regarded research and policy institute in Geneva.  We work there with Col Arnold Teicht and his team.

The Seminar started with briefings by military leaders and diplomats, and an academic overview of the leadership challenges.  Seminar participants debated ‘What makes leadership in complex operations ‘complex’?  They identified four core features:  1) organizations co-working from multiple sectors, with diverse mandates and with missions expressed in various idioms, 2) issues of urgency and scarcity because of the nature of the human privation that spurs complex operations; 3) competing conceptions of authority, accountability, feasible end-states, and criteria for ‘success’ that make collaboration in specific situation both unique and difficult to learn from; and 4) leadership building capacity that varies across the sectors and agencies, including diverse institutional traditions, career mobility, and reward structures.

In addition to the expert briefings from military and diplomats, academic case studies, and structured small group discussion, the Seminar was hosted onsite at several venerable agencies in Geneva, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Offices Geneva, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. In these visits to the agencies of International Geneva, agency leaders briefed the Seminar participants and heard their questions and sometimes skepticism about particular missions. 

In the closing days of the Seminar, participants debriefed on a classic leadership study, Shackleton’s early 20th voyage of the Endurance, toured historic buildings that bridge from the League of Nations through to the establishment of the United Nations, and shared key insights and reflection to bring back to their own organizations for Monday morning.

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