“ The maturity of an organisation’s leadership lays the foundation and sets the tone for everything that follows.
Raise emotional maturity and individuals become more secure, discerning, responsible, productive and happy.”
Edward E. Morler – The Leadership Integrity Challenge.
I started pondering on this article on 21st January, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day. My intention was to write about a highly mature being, mentioned that day in the press or other media, who somehow carries the legacy of King’s ideas.
After an hour or two of browsing and scrolling, I was not able to find a single example.
What I did come across, were numerous illustrations of the opposite.
One of them was a note in a Swedish newspaper on a United Nations’ predicament. It is not my intention to constantly find fault with that institution. But this blog’s focus is on maturity; and the UN is, unfortunately, an easy pick, with an abundance of stories on immaturity to choose among.
The latest scandal within UNAIDS is no exception. With both the executive director and his deputy “leaving prematurely” after neglecting “abuse of office, bullying and harassment”. The deputy himself was also accused of sexual harassment, though exonerated, after a criticised, internal investigation.
International aid and development organisations have gained much attention in the wake of the #metoo campaign. That may be due to their traditional culture of secrecy. It has probably more to do with the fact that we expect more from a sector that is supposed to dedicate itself to noble causes. Including the empowerment and emancipation of women.
Much focus has been on sexual harassment, but that does not exist in a vacuum. Sexual harassment often constitutes just a small fraction of the overall scope of harassment going on. Sexual harassers are not otherwise, kind, competent and trusted. Furthermore, bullying and abuse is merely one way of expressing their all-encompassing lack of integrity and emotional maturity.
What makes the UNAIDS case special, is the fact that an external investigation was carried out. And even more extraordinary, the report from that investigation has been made public.
The Report of the Independent Expert Panel
Not all accusations of harassment are true. I have personally experienced a dirty smear campaign against an innocent local staff member.
However, reading this report you quickly understand that what went on at UNAIDS was not about a handful of dubious cases. The harassment going one was systematic. As is so often the case, since harassment can only happen and continue to happen, if the leaders at the top facilitate it. Passively or actively.
The whole report is well worth reading. But if you limit yourself to merely the introduction, you will still get a picture of how ingrained and widespread the abuse was, throughout the agency.
In the report, there is no beating about the bush:
“Many staff within UNAIDS offices attest to a work culture of fear, lack of trust, and retaliation against those who speak up about harassment and abuse of power.”
A workplace pervaded by fear can never function. When you are in an environment where you constantly need to protect yourself, it is a wonder any work is carried out at all. Where fear reigns, trust is absent, leaving no room for team spirit, overcoming challenges or any kind of progress.
The expert panel continues:
“Rather, the emphasis of the UNAIDS leadership has been to blame the ‘UN system’ and its complex regime of complaints handling.”
Blaming is a core ingredient of immaturity, usually targeted at some external force. The executive director of UNAIDS did not stop at that. He even blamed his own staff.
And the expert panel conclude with:
“The Panel has no confidence that the current leadership can deliver cultural change when that leadership has been largely responsible for the current malaise. The Panel believes that for the recommendations to be genuinely implemented and UNAIDS to regain a culture of dignity and respect, a change in leadership has become necessary.”
You Become What You Recruit
People recruited to the UN, bring their existing values with them. Nothing changes just because you read the UN charter or put “UN” in front of your working title. There also seems to be a dominant, naïve perception among outsiders, that since you work with international development, you are per se a good person with strong values. The reality is very different. Within the sector, there is often an abyss between appearance and reality. Numerous cases of revealed abuse and fraud can confirm that. As is, of course, the case for many sectors in any country. But the hypocrisy becomes more flagrant for an institution, whose main purpose it is to upheld human rights.
Furthermore, those starting a UN career at a young age, are shaped by its existing values, or lack thereof. You learn that acting according to the high standards portrayed, is not what is rewarded.
The independent expert panel puts much emphasize on improving existing frameworks and procedures. Hence, they miss the core issue. What happened at UNAIDS was not caused by insufficient policies. Individual, human beings caused it. Individuals, with responsibility for other human beings’ safety and wellbeing, who so blatantly expressed their lack of integrity, had been recruited and promoted.
The only way that can happen is because they were recruited and promoted directly by, or through a system set up by, people who themselves still have some growing up to do. Being blended by academic degrees, eloquence or years of experience, without digging deeper into core beliefs, and previous record of behaviour, is an expression of immaturity. The same goes for nepotism and so called political recruitments, widespread within the UN system. Add to that, the ancient habit of turning a blind eye to serve your own interests, and the result becomes highly predictable.
The Core Issue
Impunity and insufficient ”mechanisms” are not causes. They are just the results. With emotionally mature leaders in place, the procedure for reporting harassment would have been unimportant, as any small incident of attempted harassment would have been dealt with swiftly. No matter the formalities.
The first step to recovery is increased transparency, as publishing the independent report, hopefully is a sign of.
Secondly, UNAIDS, and there are plenty of other organisations in the same situation, should ask themselves whether or not they are actually capable of recruiting their own staff. Or if they should leave it to an external body. That might be costly, but less costly than having their funding retracted from a major donor like Sweden. However, reaching such a conclusion presupposes a certain level of emotional maturity.
What is certain is that an organisation run by adolescents and toddlers, will not run fast, and will sooner or later be totally lost in the wilderness.
Building and maintaining maturity takes time and constant effort. Making substantial improvements though, is not that complicated, despite what is often proclaimed. A precondition is a willingness to acknowledge the root causes. In the case of UNAIDS, they are all about individuals’ values and beliefs, that have gone astray, or never were commendable in the first place.
No regulatory framework in this world can put that right.