Mainstreaming the “secret society” of UN values proponents

Mainstreaming the “secret society” of UN values proponents

February 2012

In the quiet huddled conversations over coffee in UN lounges, there is talk of politics, diplomatic maneuverings, critical world events, of children’s progress and the latest movies.  There’s also talk of how the UN culture itself stymies its own interests, how daily tasks seem remote from the framework of ideals and serving real people, and how it could be so much better if only….

The people having these values-oriented conversations have a sense of  “secret society” with one another. Many have encountered hard compromises and so they’re reticent to share their best thinking. Many feel that there is no real opportunity within the formal structure to express their ideas or to embody them in their work and lives in the international community. In a UN world of shrinking budgets and growing competitiveness, in atmospheres of caution and diplomacy, it takes gumption, clarity, and support to go against the tide.

Since it formed in Geneva in 2003, Global Vision Institute (GVI)* has been facilitating and evolving the ethos of this “secret society.” GVI supports the ongoing emergence of evidence that values play a critical role in UN success. What does the evidence show so far? That for significant numbers of UN and related professionals, getting things done is as much about overcoming bureaucracy, short-term focus, hierarchy, and silo mentality as it is about addressing disasters, poverty, geo-politics and environmental resource depletion.

People know what they came to the UN to do, but many feel their own values, and those of the UN, are inherently compromised in how the work is done. GVI helps leaders and groups reconnect with their “why” so that behaviors reflect the most effective ways to carry out the UN mission. Collective learning and knowledge gained over the years clearly demonstrate that when international system actors’ individual and organizational values align with UN functioning, their impact on the world is more in line with a cohesive,adaptive system, and is far more powerful.

The “secret society” isn’t an organized group; it is shorthand for a growing awareness of a common purpose of wholehearted commitment to realizing the UN Charter, and a coalescing dedication to the UN’s declared universal values: peace, justice, equality, human dignity, and environmental sustainability. This demographic may be the harbingers of a developmental leap in the UN’s self-identity. Given its scope and mission, the UN is a relatively young organization. The collective urge to re-orient toward values fundamentals is a meaningful force in the UN’s natural maturation process. Like most transformational waves in our evolution, the leap can be chaotic and fuzzy, and is usually resisted by the status quo. But historically that’s the nature of pioneering new frontiers – the visionaries who follow early inklings often have dramatic stories to tell of paving the way.

Elements of the “secret society’s” vision include ethics, excellence, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, cooperation, integrity, balance, risk-taking and adaptability – values that underlie the UN’s own universal values.  Realizing the emerging values-driven vision will mean embodying those values ourselves, making them an integral part of UN leadership, and demanding that they be operationalized in myriad practical ways in relationships, policies, programming, and in our everyday decisions.

Specific actions identified towards these ends by leaders, professionals and personnel in and around the UN have included:

  • Projecting the UN as unique in representing a particular set of values, more than for financial or political or academic clout; and with work in the UN acknowledged as different in nature from work in the private sector;
  • Developing a more expansive sense of UN identity that goes beyond a “silo” mentality, with emphasis on openness rather than competition with other staff and on enriched inter-personal relationships;
  • Leadership based on trust and advocating a clear vision; telling staff members that they are expected to make mistakes and thereby to learn, and to delegate more authority to them for such learning to take place; through recruitment, training and management practices, sending the message that initiative is valued as much as caution, and encouraging staff to become more self-reliant and entrepreneurial;
  • On bureaucracy – more horizontal discussions among co-workers; that titles, the ornamentations of power and technological trappings should be minimized, e.g. by removing titles from business cards, while promoting active listening and respect for colleagues;
  • On management – greater transparency and an “open door” policy; supporting gender mainstreaming with flexi-time and breast-feeding breaks for new mothers; breaking the homogenization of experience in the UN and bringing in different perspectives and methods for addressing problems; movement away from only talking about issues to having conversations that involve commitment to results and discussing how to achieve them;
  • On the individual level – development of the self, especially the soul and heart, and with effective exercise of the mind to conquer negative states such as anger, hatred, envy and fear;  recognizing where one stands in relation to personal and organizational vision, and mapping one’s journey.

If you sense that you might be a member of the “secret society,” you’re not alone.  In the face of our shared global uncertainty, the emerging impulse to transform the work of UN mission fulfillment may well be the critical anchor needed.   Now is the time and the secret is out.


GVI produces publications on substantive issues from a values perspective, and linked to current events on the UN agenda. GVI also solicits and hosts articles by UN system actors, so you can hear your own voice in the conversation.

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