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Hanging on the wall in Yves Daccord’s office in the Geneva headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc) is a print of a photo taken by Dutch photojournalist Teun Voeten. It shows a young Liberian woman clutching an ak-47, staring fearlessly down the lens. “There’s an interesting message about victims,” says the organisation’s director-general, appraising it like an art dealer. “This woman was the head of a militia. She most likely killed people but she was also raped and beaten almost to death. She is a victim but she is also the leader of a militia. She has this double identity.”

Considering what Daccord’s organisation does, it’s a useful message to bear in mind. Since its creation in 1863 by Henry Dunant out of the debris of the Battle of Solferino, the icrc has protected and assisted the victims of armed conflicts worldwide. But its mission is also to remain strictly independent and neutral. “I really thought about this photo because as an organisation we have to be aware of our assumptions about people, about victims,” says Daccord.

There are few conflict situations in the world today where you won’t see the famous red-cross emblem against a white background emblazoned on the side of a Land Cruiser or flag. The icrc has 16,000 employees operating in more than 80 countries, from Syria and Yemen to South Sudan and Somalia. Everywhere they operate, Daccord’s staff put themselves in harm’s way – but this is an essential component. “Our vulnerability is our strength,” he says. “Especially in this world, where trust is such a rare commodity. An icrc delegate goes as they are: no weapons, just a flag with them. It’s our vulnerability that makes us different from the warriors.”

The structure of the icrc – with its numerous virtually autonomous offices around the world – means Daccord mostly sits above the fray. As director-general he takes global strategic decisions, oversees the messages being conveyed by headquarters and ensures the organisation runs smoothly. While he visits icrc offices abroad as often as once a month, he trusts his colleagues on the ground to manage operations. “The people close to the problems are much better placed than me or anybody here. If you try to centralise everything it doesn’t work.”

Yet there is at least one type of situation that requires Daccord’s direct and hands-on involvement. “It’s happening more often that our colleagues are being taken hostage,” he says. “I’ve spent seven years in this job and I’ve only had four months without a hostage situation. Those are moments when it’s really my call at the end of the day. And you’re very aware of that, because you know the person.”

Then there are the more delicate strategic choices. Earlier this year, for instance, six icrc delegates were killed in Afghanistan in unclear circumstances and it was debatable when the teams on the ground should return to work. “Here we’re talking about more than 1,200 people,” says Daccord. “Do we allow them to take some risk or say, ‘No, we can’t’? That will arrive at my level.”

For most people, having to take such decisions would fray the nerves. Yet Daccord is unfazed. “I’m extremely at ease with the fact that I’m the ceo of an organisation that is truly dealing with life and death for a lot of people. I’m aware of that and, I must confess, I enjoy it,” he says. But, he adds, those moments “where it’s really up to me to decide, they are rare; most of the time I don’t feel that I’m making a decision alone”.

The Zürich-born 53-year-old displays a remarkable ability to leave work at the door. “I’m somebody who is easily able to relax. And I sleep well.” Part of this comes down to discipline: he is diligent about giving himself enough time off, trading in a portion of his salary for extra holiday, which allows him to take four weeks in a row in summer and two over Christmas. He also makes sure to take one full day off every week, to relax and be with his family. “Of course if the shit really hits the fan, I’ll be here,” he says. “But usually you can deal with it tomorrow.”

Yet Daccord also seems to be blessed with a rare temperament that combines compassion with clear-headed reason. This is partly what attracted him to humanitarian work 20 years ago (and before that to broadcast journalism, where he started his career). “I was deeply interested in international relations, in history and what’s happening – and also in people,” he says. When he quit his job at national broadcaster Télévision Suisse Romande, his search for a vocation led him to the icrc and he found out that delegates were sent to “places where history is happening and, on the other side, where you can be with people in special situations”.

This dual identity – at once a detached historian and a caring humanitarian – has served Daccord well at the icrc. He’s had placements in the field in Sudan and Chechnya, among others, and a job at director level in Geneva looking after communications. He became director-general in 2010 and has since guided the organisation through a time when the world and the nature of humanitarian work are changing rapidly.

One of the biggest current challenges is that multilateralism appears to be faltering. “States aren’t converging to carve out collective solutions. This is problematic because most problems are global these days.” At the same time, victims of conflicts are changing too. “In Syria people tell us about health problems, water sanitation and security,” says Daccord. “But they also talk about wi-fi and their psychological needs. They’re more sophisticated today than 10 years ago.” Like the Liberian woman in the photo on his wall, things are often more complex than they first appear.

Steering the ship in this tumultuous world, it is Daccord’s mission to ensure that the icrc can still do its job, as reliability is vital. “We visit prisoners of war,” he says. “And if you’re a prisoner, you know that I might leave today but someone else will come, somebody with the same principles. The icrc will always come to find you. That’s very powerful.”

The rules

  1. What time are you at your desk?
    I wake up at 06.15 and prepare breakfast for my three daughters. I’ll be at the office at 07.30 and start meetings around 08.00.

  2. Describe your management style.
    I’m a good listener. I’m curious and able to take the right decision at the right moment.

  3. Do you want to be liked or respected? Respected. I’m over being liked.

  4. What does your support team look like?
    One executive PA and a chief of staff.

  5. Do you read management books?
    I do but rarely. The last one was Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. But normally they’re painful to read, even if there are interesting elements.

  6. How do you unwind outside work?
    I walk constantly and I cycle but I don’t run – running destroys you. Every now and then I’ll have wine at lunch – that’s when I remember that I’m from the Latin side of the world. I sometimes socialise with the team but it’s not the pattern.

  7. Who do you go to for advice?
    I reach out to people in the organisation first. I find it interesting to bring in different perspectives; I learn very quickly when people talk.

  8. If you could fix one thing about your organisation, what would it be?
    I’d like to make the organisation more agile. As ceo you discover that, despite what you want, it always takes more time.

  9. Is it OK for employees to disagree with you?
    Yes, absolutely. What I find difficult is if people continue to disagree. Once we have decided to go this way, we have to go.

  10. Have you ever made a mistake you wish you could take back?
    Yes, plenty. I have sometimes misunderstood what the organisation is ready for and I have underestimated the human dynamic when it comes to change.

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