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News Stories · Leadership

Some things you just don’t learn on the job: the blend of crisis management with good leadership is one of them

How an EMBA helped one alumnus to become a stronger humanitarian leader, applying strategic learnings to saving lives.
August 2020

Pablo Percelsi was packing his bags, having wrapped up his two-year mission as Deputy Head of Delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Lebanon.

Suddenly, the building shook. Thinking an earthquake had struck, he wanted to run outside. When he heard the enormous bang, Percelsi, EMBA 2019, was 4km from the explosion site in the Beirut neighborhood of Hamra and yet the door to his house slammed with such force that the lock broke, missing him by centimeters.

Percelsi is no stranger to war zones. He has lived in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine but he had never heard anything like this.

He said: “The force of the blast, which was even heard in Cyprus, was like nothing anyone in Lebanon had seen before, even those who had lived through the civil war.

Percelsi, who began studying his EMBA in 2017 when working for the ICRC in Geneva, is currently unpacking cases in Dhaka — his next mission. He has been promoted to Head of Delegation in Bangladesh for the ICRC, for which he has worked since 2005. He will remain in situ for the next six months, working to give shape to the ICRC’s humanitarian response and COVID strategy.

How humanitarian work unravels in entirely predictable, often dramatic, ways

In a field job with the ICRC, you’re dealing with constant crises, both foreseen and unpredictable, he explains.

In recent years, the ICRC has scaled up its presence in Lebanon for two reasons: the swathes of refugees, both Syrian and Palestinian, and the fact it was a logistical pipeline for its Syrian mission.

“There are some 4 million residents in Lebanon; add to that several hundred thousands of Palestinian refugees and 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

“There has been little or no protection from the state in the last 2 years. We at the ICRC, went from supporting Syrians to helping the Lebanese as well.”

Percelsi has watched Lebanon change dramatically, with one eye on the situation there even when he was living in Geneva, while he was working as operations coordinator  for Lebanon.

“Beirut went bust from one day to the other. It was a Bohemian bubble, and a nice place to be two years ago. Suddenly the Lebanese pound dropped from 1,500 pounds per dollar to 10,000 – it lost its value and inflation went up 55%.”

He added: “There is no longer a middle class in Lebanon, and there is huge capital control. People cannot withdraw their savings.”

Percelsi moved to Lebanon in July 2018, carrying out his EMBA in part remotely. He became class valedictorian, and reveled in the course’s Discovery Expedition to the Silicon Valley, China and Brazil.

His motivation to undertake an EMBA came from an itch for something new after 12 years in the humanitarian sector — “I was 38, I hadn’t been to school for a while!” — but he says that the EMBA strengthened his skills as a leader in the humanitarian field.

Percelsi saw that humanitarian needs were growing around him, especially in Lebanon.

“Of course, the grounding in finance and marketing from the EMBA helps. I understand more how many of my colleagues think now.

“But the most crucial learnings were in strategy and leadership. Strategy because building and adapting, or creating from scratch quickly and professionally, is paramount. Look at Lebanon: a refugee situation, COVID, an explosion… you need to design your strategy quickly. The commercial pipeline of a country changes.”

When learning the theory serves you well

The leadership part, he says, was “the most surprising and impactful learning we had at IMD”.

“People are very different in culture and it’s so important that when you lead in turbulent times you get to know others and yourself. The leadership stream of the EMBA was quite intrusive actually; it forced us to look into ourselves: when confronted with grief and terrible situations, how do you react?

“We were able to show the Lebanese people we understood them because we understood ourselves.”

Some things are, as you’d expect, learnt on the job. “The technical aspect I could do already,” says Percelsi. “I had been in the Gaza Strip and Baghdad for two years. I experienced losing several colleagues. But doing crisis management with good leadership is completely different.”

How can you measure whether you are being effective at leading in a crisis?

“You realize your team trusts you more and feels safer coming to work, and they see the workspace as a safe space as there is leadership present. Of course, you have to diffuse this understanding of how and why we react under stress.”

Percelsi has a big strategic map to draw up for Bangladesh. “Among other things, I am here to redesign the strategy on the country’s COVID response. Drawing on what I learnt at IMD will help me to understand what resources we have, and what is going on…”

He explains some of the obvious challenges: it’s a very poor country, with two main industries, one of which, the garment industry, has all but come to a halt.

Consequently, he explains, “many people are leaving Dhaka and going back to their villages, where the health system is weaker.” Percelsi will have one eye on quelling overcrowding problems in hospitals and prisons, and another on the influx of refugees from Myanmar.

Bangladesh is not a place where there are any inherent threats on the surface. “My biggest fear here would be a car accident, but I definitely don’t feel threatened.

“In Lebanon it was also OK in that sense, but in places like Baghdad, Gaza and Afghanistan – you really feel the danger. Then again, if you’re not scared, you’re just a cowboy.

“But leaving Lebanon, I did feel like I was betraying my colleagues. It’s a huge national catastrophe. As a humanitarian worker, you always have a sense you are putting a patch on an open wound.

“The solutions to systematic problems should come from the politicians, the state and the development sector.”

But Percelsi notes that, in Lebanon, “there is too little funding for huge problems”. And this, he says, is where the ICRC occupies a privileged position: it has direct access to people, and can offer immediate shelter and health services, so it can prioritize saving lives.