2020 was tough for many of us. In addition to the personal challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us faced a level of disruption in our work lives we had never thought possible. We often held business meetings and took operational decisions while working from home. As our commutes, and the expected, face-to-face encounters of work receded rapidly, our worlds largely shrank to the size of our screens, and the distinction between our private and professional selves became more blurred than ever before.  

Despite this, we, as the United Nations (UN), can take pride in the fact that our people, while at times lost, confused, exhausted, stretched, and feeling alone, consistently worked towards its mandate.

Understanding how to enhance emotional intelligence

The United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC) is proud to serve as the primary provider of inter-agency training and learning for staff of the United Nations system. One critical area of our work is to further equip UN managers with the leadership skills and competencies required to meet the challenges of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including through our flagship UN Executive Management Programme (EMP).  

After working throughout 2020 with over 300 managers of more than 50 different nationalities, spread across 60 duty stations, we feel very energized about this one thing: for all of our cultural differences, more and more of us, as UN system managers, are acting on the understanding that real leadership also requires real emotional intelligence. Outputs; outcomes; impact; and yes, even (relevant) bureaucracy still matter; however, for us to fulfil our organizational mandate, we need to internalize and mainstream the self-awareness; self-regulation; and empathy which will allow us to truly treat our people as our best asset.  

What does this mean in practice? Ultimately, answers to this question depend on context, and the unique individuals and situations each of us experiences every day. They must start, however, with a scoped vision that is firmly enshrined in the principles of the UN System Leadership Framework, coupled with sustained efforts focused on transition and change. However, although the Framework should be our starting point, it is critical that we incorporate practicing emotional intelligence into these efforts – for it is only then that we’ll be able to more effectively serve those we’re mandated to serve, those that will need us to deliver ever more results in a post-COVID-19 world. Let’s explore what we need to learn to apply this mindset now.

Firstly, emotionally intelligent leadership is intentional.

It is leadership that recognizes and celebrates team members as unique human beings with their own lives, identities, emotions, achievements, strengths and weaknesses, while promoting and maintaining a positive team culture. “Leadership is a Conversation”, said the title of a classic Harvard Business Review article published almost a decade ago.  

Practicing (no, actually practicing) active listening: listening to understand, or indeed, listening with curiosity, plays a huge role in this process. That’s why leading teams which have been particularly stretched during the pandemic will increasingly require managers who are not simply available, but available and present. This means making and taking the time - and the effort - to hone skills in perceiving - and acting upon - even the weakest of signals from team members who may be struggling - like an unusually quiet team member during a virtual meeting.

By practicing (no, actually practicing) skills such as active listening, and effectively using tools such as coaching, mentoring, and regular feedback, emotionally intelligent leaders are better able to crack the code of trust, one of the most precious managerial currencies. As stated by a participant in one of the 2020 Editions of our EMP, “...when people know they are “seen”, and trusted, miracles happen.” Cultivating such trust, and the related psychological safety this can nurture does a lot more than fostering team members’ mental and emotional well-being in the present: it helps them unlock their true potential and more consistently be their best selves even amidst troubled, or uncertain, times.

Investing in our people

This leads us to our second point: by delivering on their duty of care for team members, emotionally intelligent leaders are not only doing the right thing from a human perspective: they’re investing in the future capacity of the organization to achieve its mandate. Devoting time to supporting the growth of team members on a regular basis helps leaders to manage the motivational levels of teams as a whole, but also very practically, helps to ensure they as managers have the necessary buy-in when it is required most. This is why recent iterations of our EMP have incorporated executive coaching sessions for participants, as well as enabling them to practice their coaching skills with each other in dedicated training interventions. We have received feedback from UN managers that such trust-building and regular coaching conversations also help avoid the piling-up of urgent tasks at the end of project; programme; or annual cycles - something we’re all mindful of in the face of increasingly limited resources.

In times of such stretched resources and continued disruption, investing in teams’ well-being and performance requires not just a clear vision, but also a complementary strategy to allocate energy, time, and tools efficiently. This requires cultivating a set of interlinked competencies. To create a safe and inspiring space where, as mentioned by a 2020 EMP participant, “...other people shine on their way to reaching joint goals,” managers increasingly need a comprehensive toolbox at their disposal – one where people- and performance-management; strategic planning; innovation; and communication; among other skills and competencies, are all seen as necessary and mutually supporting.  

The Journey to Self- Mastery

This is where we need to come back to what the UN System Leadership Framework asks of all of us: leadership needs to be multidimensional, transformational of others and ourselves, and self-applied. It starts with the self. When they are self-aware, ready to learn from situations and others, and equipped with solid self-care practices – managers can best cultivate trust, co-create vision with their teams, and have positive impact on the lives of those who count on them. Having a network of like-minded managers who face similar challenges as well as having uniquely diverse experiences, is a crucial stepping stone in that regard.

In their contributions across the discussion fora of our EMP, the managers we had the privilege to co-create this collaborative learning journey with throughout 2020 role-modelled honesty and openness by sharing their successes, failures, unique insights and expertise. In doing so, they created a resource and support system for themselves, as well as for others, understanding that positive change starts with each of us.  

As we progress in 2021 and beyond, we must continue to draw, and act upon, lessons from the challenges of 2020. These challenges, and the evolving environment in which the UN works, demand, now more than ever, emotionally intelligent, innovative and strategic leaders, able to support teams and each other. Through the 2021 Editions of our UN Executive Management Programme, we at the UNSSC will be here again to design and facilitate the sharing, the learning, and the growth of UN managers, both in the field and at headquarters. We look forward to welcoming you to a developing community of leaders committed to increased emotional intelligence and working towards the achievement of our organization’s mandate.

Would you like to be part of this developing community?   

Join us for the next available edition of the Executive Management Programme.



The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.