Jim Yong Kim, President Obama’s surprise pick to lead the World Bank, will become the first physician, the first Asian-American and the first person who has devoted his career to helping the poor to lead the more than 60-year-old organization. Since its founding in 1944, 11 men have led the World Bank, among them a former defense secretary, the CEOs of major banks and even the one-time publisher of The Washington Post. Investment bankers, former Wall Street titans and Washington servants figure prominently in the organization’s leadership history.
Kim brings to the post an entirely different set of experiences and, consequently, surely a different world view than those who have held it in the past. Though he has been the president of Dartmouth since 2009, Kim, a physician and anthropologist by training, is perhaps most known for co-founding the global health organization Partners in Health with Paul Farmer. He also has directed the Department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization, where he led an initiative to treat 3 million new HIV/AIDs patients with antiretroviral drugs.
If Kim is selected (Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has also been nominated), it’s hard to see how his leadership would not usher in a sizeable organizational shift. I’m far from being an expert on the culture of the World Bank, but an institution that has been led for more than 60 years by bankers, politicians and defense experts cannot be left untouched by the backgrounds of the people who hail from those fields. At last, an organization whose mission is supposed to be lifting people out of poverty will have someone at the helm whose life’s work has been dedicated toward a similar goal. As President Obama said in announcing his selection: “It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency.”
Shifting the organization to line up with its new leadership will no doubt be Kim’s biggest challenge. The World Bank, which has been the subject of many efforts at reform over the years, is an organization that has no shortage of critics. They point to mismanagement and ineffectiveness, as well as a culture dominated by bankers and politicians who, in the words of Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, were part of making the bank seem “like just a bank” and “who lack the expertise to fulfill the institution’s unique mandate.”
To carry out this shift, Kim will need to bring on more senior people who share his expertise. (Sachs might still be interested!) At the same time, to combat any questions about his own background that will inevitably rise, given how different it is from that of past leaders, he will need to do plenty of outreach to the bankers and economists both inside and outside the organization, getting them onboard with his vision for the institution.
And he will need to carefully outline the priorities of the organization, making sure that incentives and opportunities to advance are in step with those goals. As with any leader managing change, one of his biggest challenges will be shifting the minds of people, not the work or goals of the organization.
As Kim said in a video interview with On Leadership, great leaders know how to make tough decisions, inspire others and take responsibility for bringing people together. They know when to keep quiet, and how to take an organization “to a place that’s better than it was before.” But they also know what may be the hardest jobs of any leader—how to carefully break long-standing traditions and cultural norms, and how to shift the mindsets of the people who work for them.
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