Bridging the humanitarian governance triangle of politics, power, and ethics is a complex task, but one Peter Maurer was destined to achieve as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Known for its rapid response in disasters and within armed conflict zones, the Red Cross is arguably the largest and most sophisticated humanitarian organization in terms of governance.
Businesses that find themselves entangled in complicated geopolitics can learn how the ICRC can maintain its neutrality while preserving its purpose. Here are four critical takes from my recent conversation with Maurer:
1. Being Purpose-Driven is a Strength
“Defining [the ICRC’s] purpose is unnecessary because everyone who comes here knows what the purpose is,” says Maurer. “It is so self-evident that it doesn’t need to be restated. For 130 years, it has been enshrined in the practice of the organization.”
This unmistakeable purpose is essential to good governance, particularly during a crisis: in highly unstable environments, humanitarian supply and command chains break down, and isolated individuals must make critical decisions. Because of the ICRC’s clarity of purpose, its alignment and efficiency have remained high, even in remote and complex locations (such as Sudan and Iraq). “After three to four months of strong purpose in action,” says Maurer, “we are—despite all the restrictions—at 85% of delivery of services.”
While purpose drives humanitarian organizations like the ICRC, it’s not necessarily so for commercial companies and businesses that must take time to define their purpose. That said, Maurer believes that the ICRC is indeed a business; it’s in the business of humanitarian diplomacy.
Yet, purpose does not come without consequences. “In a purpose-driven organization like ours, everybody believes they are a part of the purpose,” Maurer says. “Those who work here have a solid opinion on almost everything. Purpose can sometimes overshadow management good practices,” admits Maurer. So, keeping efficiency and having a board that emulates good management is essential for success.
2. Geopolitical Skills are the Next Big Board Competency
From decades as a diplomat, Maurer’s vast geopolitical knowledge is undoubtedly one of his top strengths. But shouldn’t all board members upskill their geopolitics to succeed?
“There is an advantage today of knowing something about geopolitics; it is uncontested,” says Maurer. “Of course, you need diverse skills on a board. Not everybody has to understand the intricacies of power politics. But only one skilled director is not enough.”
A robust diversity of skills—and the ability to “connect the dots” in a world which, for many people, is no longer easily understood—is crucial for boards. While finance and technology are the most required skills on boards today, geopolitics is quickly becoming a key area of success. Geopolitics drives relationships to relevant stakeholders, including governments, state-owned enterprises, and regulators, and is a force behind social evolution and technological choices. In short: geopolitical abilities are crucial.
3. True Diversity Overcomes Deadly Blind Spots
True diversity is required for good governance. In such a complex world, we need creative thinking, open minds, and constructive dissent to form as complete a view of reality as possible. While diversity may hinder alignment, in the face of epic transformations in society, politics, technology, and business models, creativity and agility trump alignment and efficiency.
Throughout history, humanitarian governance has consistently welcomed diversity in all forms—ethnicity, age, gender, religion, and fundamentally divergent perspectives—far more than businesses have. Of course, companies have an efficiency advantage. But with the average tenure on the S&P 500 dropping from 67 years to 14 years over the last century, many question whether short-term efficiency is being overwhelmed by medium-term failure. Diversity may well be a long-term driver of resilience.
4. Maintaining Neutrality is Challenging, but it can be Preserved
Today, the basic notion of business remaining neutral, keeping politics to politicians, is being threatened. Somehow, businesses are pushed to take sides: Which country is supplying key technology? What social views does business support? What is an organization’s true identity?
Companies caught in the push and pull of politics can learn from how the ICRC maintains its neutrality and its purpose. The key, says Maurer, is to keep trust with each party, avoiding grandstanding while staying firm on universal values. One’s organization’s views should be expressed respectfully and privately, while always acting with integrity.
As Maurer has tackled relations between Ukraine and Russia and Iraqi government officials and Taliban representatives, he has found that these principles work well to preserve neutrality.
In our rapidly evolving world, these four takes from humanitarian governance—defining a purpose, understanding geopolitics, embracing diversity, and maintaining neutrality—can be useful to any organization, large or small.