“Business as Unusual”: Fletcher Honors Maria Kristensen, F02, with Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award

Maria Kristensen speaks at The Fletcher School

By Allyson Hawkins 

“It’s a humbling experience to receive an award simply for doing my job,” Kristensen said in her opening remarks to a packed ASEAN auditorium on Monday, March 27th. Quick to highlight the accomplishments of her national staff colleagues, and of her fellow Fletcher classmates, Kristensen accepted the honor with grace and insight with a speech about her work in the humanitarian sector.

After interning with the Danish Refugee Council during her time at Fletcher, Kristensen took a position at the Council on Foreign Relations after graduation. She enjoyed the position, but felt she could be more relevant working directly with conflict-affected populations. So when the Danish Refugee Council called with an offer three years later, she hopped at the chance to “run towards the challenge” and has never looked back.

In the time since, her career has taken her across conflict zones working on crosscutting issues like aid delivery, migration, and de-mining. She has worked in Sudan, South Sudan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Ukraine, among other places, and currently works with Save the Children Denmark.

The Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award was established in 2014 by the Board of Advisors of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and the School’s executive leadership to honor outstanding women graduates who are making a meaningful impact in the private, public, and NGO sectors. Kristensen began her remarks by addressing a head-on an issue many have pondered since the award’s establishment: why a women’s leadership award? She highlighted a pattern prominent in the private sector, but that impacts leadership across other sectors as well; women’s representation has made gains in lower levels of administrations, but the number of women in leadership positions decreases drastically the higher you rise in leadership structures.

This phenomena, she asserts, has little do to with women being ineffective leaders. In fact, as women age, they generally remain more receptive to feedback (a trait that disappears in men as they become older) which makes their leadership capability stronger over time. A piece of this puzzle, she stated, was the fact that in leadership, confidence is often conflated with competence. However, until men and women have access to the same leadership opportunities, she believes that showcasing a diversity of leadership styles is valuable in helping recruiters recognize the abilities of both men and women. Unfortunately, she lamented, women’s leadership is still very much, “business as unusual.”

Throughout her remarks, Kristensen highlighted the importance of collaboration, emotional intelligence, and pragmatism, which have helped her manage humanitarian teams and negotiate dangerous and challenging situations throughout her career. “The most important thing I learned at Fletcher was to trust my instincts,” she remarked. Her numerous examples of tough challenges she faced in the field demonstrated that “un-siloed” thinking has been a critical factor in her leadership efforts.

Additionally, context analysis has proven a vital skill. “Without understanding the context [of a humanitarian crisis],” she said, “we can’t understand how people will respond to our efforts.” Leadership in the aid industry, she asserted, ultimately boils down to one’s ability to transfer vision into reality, the ability to motivate your staff and give them hope that the goals of a mission are feasible, and requires a leader to be actively engaged in the work that all team members are doing. “If [your team] isn’t performing, it means you’re not performing as a leader,” Kristensen said.

Leading by example doesn’t appear to be a challenge for Kristensen. Her ability to weave together context analysis, empathy, and ‘gut instinct’ has helped her and her teams assist conflict-affected populations in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. Her advice to the audience was simple: get outside your comfort zone. “That’s where new ideas emerge.”

Read more about Kristensen’s accomplishments here.

For more information on the Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award, click here.

Allyson Hawkins is a second year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School, focusing on the intersection of human security and gender in the Middle East. She can be reached at allyson.hawkins@tufts.edu. 

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