Agenda 2030 is a transformational plan of action for the world’s people and for our planet that aims to achieve peace and prosperity through partnerships. It is universal, as it applies to all countries, not only developing ones. It is interconnected, as it brings together social inclusion and economic growth with environmental protection and governance, and recognizes that what happens at country, regional and global level is all interlinked. It is predicated on multi-stakeholder partnerships, since no government or UN entity can do it alone. And last but not least, it prioritises the worst off, as it pledges to “leave no one left behind” and “reach the furthest first”.
To help implement it, the UN must transform the way it works. It needs to work with the North as much as with the South. It needs to work “across the Charter”, overcoming institutional silos, and across the country, regional and global levels at once. It needs to work with stakeholders as a facilitator and a convenor, rather than as an implementer. All of this fundamentally requires changing our organizational culture.
In April 2017 the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) adopted the UN Leadership Framework. The framework outlines what a UN leadership culture aligned with Agenda 2030 should consist of and how it should look like. Because leadership can and should be exercised not only by formally designated leaders but by all staff, the expectations outlined in the framework apply to all UN staff, at all levels, in all locations.
The framework has the potential to catalyse the culture change that is required to transform the way the UN works. By providing a common language around leadership, the framework will also help UN entities come closer together. Only by partaking of a common culture while leveraging its diversity, can the UN system ensure that its collective contribution to Agenda 2030 is greater than the sum of the individual contributions of its constituent parts.
The framework identifies eight defining characteristics of leadership in the UN: it is norm-based, principled, inclusive, accountable, multi-dimensional, transformational, collaborative, and self-applied. It also identifies four leadership behaviours that exemplify the new way of working: focusing on impact, driving transformational change, systems thinking, and co-creation.
In order for this new leadership culture to become the way we do business in the UN, individual UN entities and the UN system as a whole will have to align their organizational cultures to it. This will require a purposeful culture change effort that will take leadership, time and persistence to succeed.
Changing the UN’s organizational culture also requires changing the way we drive change in the UN. We should rely on pull rather than push factors and make adhering to the desired behaviours attractive to staff, instead of imposing them through formal instruments. We should capitalize on horizontal and bottom-up dynamics, instead of relying on the usual – and seldom effective – vertical and top-down drivers.
More fundamentally, we should recognize that we will not succeed in changing the behaviour of all staff members in all UN entities. We should therefore not even try to do so. At the individual level, we should focus on empowering existing change agents – those who already display the desired leadership characteristics – so that gradually the new culture becomes predominant. At the institutional level, we should harness the competitiveness that exists among UN entities to spur change.
Lastly, we should invest in transparency as a powerful lever of culture change. UN entities will autonomously decide the extent to which they wish to commit to this initiative: the progress they make should be publicized and their successes recognized both within and outside the UN.