When she was 16 years old, Valerie Amos was certain she knew what she was going to do as an adult.

“I was going to run the world,” said Amos, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, speaking at the recent 17th annual Wharton Leadership Conference. “I was naïve, I admit, and I have not gotten to run the world, but I still have that passion.”

Amos has, however, had a hand in trying to solve many of the world’s crises. For the last several decades, she has worked for the British government and various non-profit groups. In July 2010, she was appointed to her current post by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“I am a migrant myself, so I think I can understand what is going through people’s minds as they become refugees.”

Her leadership style, Amos admitted, can be mercurial. “Do I have a secret sauce? No, I am not particularly conscious of turning something on or off, but I feel I have a mystical kind of leadership. I think I know almost instinctively what is needed [and when]. You do learn that over time,” she added, beginning with observing your parents and “seeing what they do.”

A World of Refugees

Born in 1954, Amos emigrated to Great Britain from British Guiana (now known as Guyana), attended grammar school in England and became the first black student to be Head Girl at what is now Townley Grammar School for Girls in the Bexley section of London. She earned a degree in sociology at the University of Warwick and then started a career in government, eventually becoming a life peer in the Labour Party in 1997. The position came with a title: Baroness Amos of Brondesbury in the London Borough of Brent.

She was named Secretary of State for International Development in 2003 — the first black woman in a British cabinet. Less than six months later, she became the leader of the House of Lords. She held cabinet and sub-cabinet posts until her appointment to her current position.

Despite the devastation she has seen in places like Haiti, Syria, Somalia and Myanmar, Amos tries to keep an even keel as a leader. “I am a migrant myself, so I think I can understand what is going through these people’s minds as they become refugees,” said Amos. “But my parents instilled in me that you can become anything you want if you are just persistent…. It created a [sense of] confidence in what we were doing.”

That confidence, she added, is always being tested in her current job. There is never enough humanitarian aid, never enough people to offer help, and only sometimes enough will in the devastated communities to get the necessary work done.

No matter what the crisis, though, Amos said she has to remember that the ultimate goal is to establish a long-term relationship with whatever government and community leaders are involved in the crisis, or all the success will only be temporary. “I was in South Sudan recently and saw the people who had been living in refugee camps for the last 10 years,” she said. “If someone went in there at age nine, they are now 19, with seemingly no prospects. Similarly in the Congo, that crisis has gone on forever. There have to be long-term solutions to give hope.”

Her work, she noted, generally falls into three different kinds of crises, and there are many of each type going on at once. The one that seems to take precedence, she said, at least in the eyes of the television watching world, is the political crisis, like the one currently in Syria. “Syria has to be right at the top of my agenda because everyone sees it on their TV screens,” she said, adding that she has been to Syria four times, as well as to neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Israel. Seven million people there are on the move, and half of them are refugees at any one time, according to Amos.

“There is a complex crisis there on the ground, with more than 1,000 different organizations — from criminal gangs to the free Syrian army to groups aligned with every imaginable foreign organization,” she said. “Just trying to get food or health supplies to people often involves going down a road with 50 checkpoints, and you do not know whose checkpoint will be next.

“You have to negotiate with everyone, and even that is hardly secure,” Amos noted, adding that sometimes people get kidnapped, while at other times the food just gets taken from the convoys. Even surgical equipment gets stolen. “The Syrian pound has no value, and parts of the country, which used to be thriving, have no electricity or reliable water supplies. The governments in Jordan and Lebanon are fragile, so we have to continue to negotiate there.”

Food and Safety

As a leader, Amos’s main job in this kind of crisis is to keep up to speed, make decisions quickly and inspire others to work beside her.

The second kind of crisis is at least easy to define, and that is the natural disaster, like the floods in Haiti and, more recently, in Pakistan. “When you have a huge natural disaster, people are displaced, but usually there are no political roadblocks when you roll in and get them food, then get them moved to safety,” she said. It requires a huge amount of organizational skill, but if there are no political impediments, at least a relatively successful outcome can be achieved with the help of local governments and local infrastructure.

The third set of crises is what Amos’s organization calls the slow onset disasters. “These are crises that creep up. There is a major food crisis in the horn of Africa, for instance. Last year, in the Sahel [zone] of Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, we had 20 million people not getting enough food…. This will probably be an ongoing crisis. We have to figure out now what we do when the drought is deeper. How do we cope? How do we [maintain] the social safety net for these countries?”

Consequently, a major part of her job, Amos said, is to be the advocate for the victims of all these crises in the United Nations. To lead in this effort, she has to know where to organize and whom to enlist in the effort. It is especially important that she has reliable contacts on the ground who will sustain the effort if she can get supplies and money to them. “It is sometimes the most frustrating job, but, then, because of that, it can be exhilarating,” she noted.

“Just trying to get food or health supplies to people often involves going down a road with 50 checkpoints, and you do not know whose checkpoint will be next.”

Mostly, Amos added, the important thing is that she needs to have clarity of vision in a world of many crises. Everyone she works with has something to add: Her job is to figure out what that is. “When you are dealing with saving lives like this, it does not seem like you have to look four or five years away, but you have to do that as well. We have to think about the now, but we also have to work with governments and make them more resilient. My background tells me, too, that a leader has to be loving as well.”

Amos has been at her most vulnerable when she has seen her staff succumb to a crisis. “When you are in Haiti for a long time, you want your family with you, and as a leader, I have to understand that. But sometimes it becomes a disaster itself,” she said. In one case, one of her staff lost his wife and children who had accompanied him to the crisis area.

“In any country, I try to do my best to meet my team on the ground and listen to what they have to say,” said Amos, adding that although the work is extraordinary, in many respects, it is like any other work situation. “It is my responsibility to have my staff feel like they are contributing to something they feel is worth their time and effort.”