What Kind of Leadership Does Sustaining Peace Require?

The observation point at Sugarloaf Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro. (Grigoriy Sisoev/Sputnik via AP)

Aspirations for peace tend to be depicted negatively, as the absence of conflict. In many societies, peace is experienced as the order that follows the end of war, often called negative peace. Seen through this prism, peace is rarely studied independently or measured directly without the long shadow of its ubiquitous companion, conflict. It also leaves little space for peace to be pursued as a national meta-policy—as in Costa Rica with its national vision for peace, or Ethiopia with its newly-established Ministry for Peace.

It is important to acknowledge that negative peace, and the conflict resolution approaches associated with it, are critical when violence is threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. While negative peace is reversible, it can endure, often with the help of an external third party such as a peacekeeping operation. However, if positive, self-sustainable peace is the desired outcome, there is a need for a more nuanced understanding that taps into the human potential for peace, rather than the overstated potential for war that continues to inform the ways we conceive of peace and security.

Reframing “Sustaining Peace”

The twin United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions of April 2016 on sustaining peace epitomize the latter understanding, namely that peacebuilding and sustaining peace are relevant solely in contexts where conflict is manifest or proximate. The resolutions are wedded to the predominant belief that if you understand the pathology of war, destruction, and injustice, and analyze and address the root causes of conflict, peace will ensue. This despite empirical evidence pointing to the contrary. For researchers that study peace, and for practitioners who believe that peace should be the starting point and the end goal, sustaining peace is an ongoing process and not a one-time intervention. It is also relevant to all societies.

Negative peace and sustaining peace, as framed above, are not in contradiction. Employing various peacebuilding and peacekeeping strategies to prevent conflict is important. Alone, however, these strategies only achieve “half the peace,” meaning they only ensure the absence of destructive violence. Preventing conflict, particularly if driven by state-centric, top down interventions, should be complemented by the equally important task of identifying and strengthening the conditions that enable people to satisfy their basic needs, experience low levels of violence, engage in mutually harmonious relationships, and pursue their legitimate everyday aspirations without coercion, but with justice and in security.

Sustaining peace should thus be motivated by the humility to learn from what still works well in societies under stress and to respect that however broken these societies may appear, they have capacities and not just needs. The oft-used analogy is that peace is like a tree, it grows from the bottom up. However, for this bottom-up peacebuilding approach to be effective it needs to tap into and strengthen the resilient capacities at the middle level—local authorities, civil society organizations, local business councils, and the private sector.

The Implications for Leadership

A key determinant for laying the foundations for sustaining peace is leadership. Much has been written about leaders, about peace, and most recently about peace leadership, but little about leadership for sustaining peace. A fundamental tenet of leadership for sustaining peace is that it encompasses qualities and attributes beyond those we ordinarily associate with individual leaders.

For the purpose of this article, leadership for sustaining peace is defined as: the processes that create and nurture an empowering environment that unleashes the positive energy and potential that exist in people, enabling them to resolve conflict non-violently and to participate in co-charting a path towards positive peace. In situations where the context and people are determining factors for sustaining peace, leadership for peace entails facilitating the creation of participatory and inclusive mechanisms that allow local populations to articulate their priorities and immediate needs, and actively participate in designing and evaluating responses to those needs.

It also entails rethinking the ways we analyze peace and conflict contexts. This means that we would not only assess the factors that drive and sustain violence, but also map the capacities that maintain and nurture peace, the threads and stitches that hold countries together despite internal vulnerabilities and external pressures. Because marginalized social groups, including women and youth, experience peace and conflict differently, specific measures need to be taken to ensure that their unique leadership perspectives and roles are captured in this analytical exercise.

A central attribute of leadership for sustaining peace is the ability to understand and leverage polarities. A polarity is not a problem that has a right or best solution, but is rather a dilemma that is ongoing, not easily solvable, and contains seemingly opposing ideas. We usually think of them as dichotomies, such as short term or long term, change or stability, peace or conflict, and negative peace or positive peace. This tendency to view things in opposition to one another impedes any effort to build a peaceful society, especially in complex contexts where challenges to peace cannot be easily depicted as black or white.

This habit of thinking has consequences. When, for example, the relationship between conflict and peace is understood in a binary way, stable societies or communities in the same country are excluded from the study of peace, when in fact these are the case studies most likely to reveal the factors associated with peace. This is illustrated by the cases of Ghana and Senegal, which are considered oases of peace in the troubled region of West Africa.

Another attribute of leadership for sustaining peace is the ability to unpack the powerful assumptions that underpin the theory and practice of contemporary peacebuilding, to understand why efforts for long-term peace fail. This is all the more important in a context where the nation-state is under stress and populism is on the rise, where the international norms we have taken for granted are being contested, and where emerging powers are creating new narratives and paradigms for how the world should be ordered and peace built.

Last, but not least, leadership for sustaining peace means leadership teams should be prepared to assume responsibility to do no harm. The principles of doing no harm are part of long-standing practice in the international humanitarian community, well before they became a standard for other international intervenors. These principles include an understanding that efforts by outsiders to engineer specific short-term outcomes that may calm the ravages of violent conflict, or produce a modicum of stability and security, may in the end not build durable peace. They may instead raise expectations, create dependence, and undermine self-organization, among other harms.


 At a time when the effectiveness of UN peacebuilding and peacekeeping endeavors are in question and under scrutiny, paltry attention seems to have been given to leadership for peace, either in the reform agendas or the training of senior mission leadership, beyond the generic expounding on what constitutes a good leader. The one refreshing exception is Fabrizio Hochschild’s study on leadership in the UN context. It is hoped that the above observations will serve as a catalyst for a deeper reflection on how best to unleash the UN’s leadership potential for sustaining peace, both at headquarters and in the field.