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Post Leadership
Posted at 11:47 AM ET, 04/05/2012

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership potential at the World Bank


Attention has been swirling around economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister, as one of three candidates for leading the World Bank. (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

President Obama’s announcement in March that he would be nominating Jim Yong Kim to lead the World Bank took many by surprise. A physician and co-founder of a global health organization that aids the developing world, Kim, now the president of Dartmouth College, was seen by many to be an inspired and out-of-the-box choice. For decades, the post has been filled by bankers, Washington insiders and Wall Street titans; Kim would bring new thinking and fresh strategies to an institution many say is in need of change.

But attention has also been swirling around economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister, who is one of two other candidates seeking the job. This is the first contested election for the World Bank presidency — the job has traditionally gone to whoever gets the nod from the U.S. president. Okonjo-Iweala has served twice at the World Bank in the past, first as an economist, vice president and corporate secretary and then, from 2007 to 2011, as the organization’s managing director under Robert Zoellick. She is known for helping Nigeria, once considered the world’s most corrupt country, add transparency and enact reforms that clean up its finances.

She is also quickly becoming a favorite among some editorial boards and economics writers to get the post. Called a “triple threat” for her experience in government, economics and finance, the woman who once walked her malaria-stricken three-year-old sister to a clinic 10 kilometers away to save her life also knows a thing or two about public health problems in the developing world. As The Economist put it, she is “the best candidate available,” calling her a “formidable public economist” and saying “may the best woman win.” Reuters’ Felix Salmon was even more blunt: “Does anybody at all think Kim’s a better candidate than Ngozi?”

Another key advantage, it shouldn’t be forgotten, is that she’s something of an insider. After working two stints at the World Bank in the past, she knows her way around the bureaucracy and will know how to drive the people there to make the World Bank faster, more nimble and more responsive to the needs of developing countries. As she told The New York Times’ Annie Lowery, “I’d look to do things in days and weeks rather than months and years, and I have the bureaucratic knowledge, the knowledge of the institution, to make that happen.”

This is no small upside. Knowing how a place works — what motivates people, what kind of internal politics are at play, what has been tried in the past and doesn’t work — is much of the battle of leading an organization. As Salmon writes, “Okonjo-Iweala is in many ways the ‘establishment choice’ for the job. But … when you’re talking about a massive bureaucracy like the World Bank, only an establishmentarian has a chance of being able to steer it, rather than simply being steered by it or completely marginalized.”

We seem to have blind faith in the power of the outside thinker and the anti-establishment figure to bring about change. From consultants who’ve never managed a balance sheet to presidential candidates who’ve never held public office, we have a fascination with the belief that fresh thinking can solve any problem. But while leaders can bring in all the new ideas in the world, if they don’t have the knowledge of an institution’s inner workings, it can take so much time to enact change that they lose the patience of the people waiting for it. All too often, they’re out of a job before those new ideas and fresh approaches have a chance to take hold and gain momentum.

Jim Yong Kim could very well do a wonderful job leading the World Bank. He is thoughtful about the challenges of leadership and his nod could very well usher in change that no traditional banker who’s held the post in the past ever could. But in Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the World Bank gets both: a veteran of the institution who is also an outsider — this is no Wall Street banker, after all — with deep and successful experience in the developing world.

More from On Leadership:

How Jim Yong Kim could change the World Bank

Words fit for a president?

Sending in the clowns for the GSA

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By  |  11:47 AM ET, 04/05/2012

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