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Between chaos and control: Rethinking operational leadership

Research reports

Written by Paul Knox-Clarke

​In recent years the topic of operational leadership has been the subject of increased attention in the humanitarian sector. Practitioners and policymakers have regularly expressed concern over the quality of operational leadership and the effects that this has on humanitarian response.

In this research we define operational leadership as a combination of three functions: defining a vision for humanitarian response, developing a strategy to achieve this vision and implementing this strategy.

It is commonly assumed by humanitarian policy-makers that a single individual performs these three functions the leader.

ALNAP’s previous work on this topic suggests that, in fact, the functions of leadership are shared among the individual leader, the leadership team around her/him, and organisational procedures and structures that ‘substitute’ for leadership by making certain decisions automatic.

In this research we tested the contribution of all three elements – leader, team and procedures/structures – to successful leadership.

Paul Knox-Clarke