More than the sum of the parts? Collective leadership vs individual agency in humanitarian action

More than the sum of the parts

At the global level, there have been strong commitments to collective humanitarian action, especially since the World Humanitarian Summit and Grand Bargain agreement. But evidence suggests that these commitments are not always translated into reality. Why is this? This paper argues that an important reason is that collective leadership is not realised to its full potential. Understood broadly as a dynamic process of working collectively in view of a shared goal, collective leadership calls for everyone in the humanitarian system to take responsibility for the success of the system as a whole – not just for their own area of interest or mandate. Focusing on the interface between collective ambitions and individual agency incentives, this paper discusses some of the factors that systematically undermine collective leadership in the humanitarian system. These include agencies’ internal processes and mindsets, but also external factors, which tend to stress competition over collaboration. The paper also suggests possible ways to offset the existing incentives that predominantly encourage a focus on individual agency performance at the expense of that of the collective. There is a need to distinguish between leadership within one institution and leadership on behalf of the collective.



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