Winnie Byanyima: ‘It’s powerful to be different. I never hesitate to be myself’

Most leaders have had to navigate conflicts to survive and rise within their organisations, but few have ever faced the sort of front-line experiences that Winnie Byanyima has overcome.

As a Ugandan, she navigated her country’s postcolonial turmoil to gain a place at a top university. But she and her family were soon refugees in the UK via Kenya as they were forced to flee persecution. She took up her studies again at the University of Manchester, excelling in the male-dominated subjects of aeronautical engineering and environmental science. She then turned down a scholarship in the US to return to Uganda and enter politics.

“I’m a nomad,” she says. “I’ve wandered into different things as a curious person who is passionate about social justice.”

As a political activist and community organiser, when the rule of Milton Obote veered towards the dictatorship of his deposed predecessor Idi Amin, Byanyima joined Uganda’s underground guerrilla movement to help overthrow him in favour of Yoweri Museveni.

After a period representing Uganda’s government abroad and working for international organisations focused on women’s rights, she was appointed head of Oxfam International in 2013. There she spearheaded efforts to “decolonise” the charity, which had been co-founded by “very privileged” dons at Oxford, and shifted its headquarters to Kenya.

She also helped oversee its response to sexual abuse scandals, before being appointed two years ago to lead the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids). Its focus on tackling the virus had been set back by internal harassment concerns.

Byanyima recalls growing up angry and scared under Amin’s repressive rule. “I saw my friends being picked up at school and coming back after a week with a shaved head — a sign they were mourning the loss of their dad and had not even been able to bury him,” she says.

“A woman didn’t know what she could do. Any soldier could take you off the street, marry you and their parents not dare say a word.”

Her mother, a teacher, and her father, an opposition politician, inspired a belief that “social justice is something you stand up for, enjoy, do for yourself and others, pay a price and move on.” She criticised the regime with classmates, while living “in fear that my father might die, and then in fear for myself”.

As a student in England, she recalls overcoming prejudice, including an occasion when her professor summoned her after she gained top marks. “There was always surprise at how well I could do — it was assumed because you were an African and a woman, you can’t be as good.”

She joined political debates, but grew disillusioned with the narrow focus in the UK. “While the Greenham Common protesters were preoccupied with [US] nuclear weapons, we were being killed in Uganda by small arms,” she says. “Radical feminists talked about body autonomy, but I thought ‘when will they come to the issues of political liberation, ending dictatorships, fighting poverty?’ They never did.”

Back in Uganda, she sought to tackle corruption and exploitation. She stood as a parliamentary candidate against an incumbent minister from her own party whom she felt did not work sufficiently for his constituents. “The male candidates held big rallies on a podium,” she says. “I went into slums, into people’s kitchens and talked to women.” She won convincingly.

Alongside values, she reflects on other important leadership skills. “To understand people and how to work with them. You need to be able to know what you can deliver, what you need from others and what they need from you.”

Another important quality is resilience. “You need to be adaptable,” she says. “Everything throws something new at you, and you must be able to fall and get up quickly. I’ve had my falls many times.”

While at Oxfam International, she nurtured its shift from humanitarian aid agency to campaigning group, giving a greater voice to branches in developing countries. “We were best loved for the work we did to support communities to get themselves on their feet. But this was simply not enough. The majority of the poor were in middle-income countries. The issue was inequality.”

To spark reform, she sought to influence the global elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in the Swiss Alps, heavily armed with evidence and arguments. This sparks a reflection on another leadership characteristic that she believes to be essential: authenticity.

“I would walk into a room with 30 to 40 men in black and grey suits and a few corporate women in little black suits,” she says. “In my country, we wear green, yellow and red. The default is to blend in and be less threatening. But why be a bit different? I would overcome my fear and get on with my message in the sharpest way. It’s powerful to be different. I never hesitate to be myself.”

The latter part of her term at Oxfam was overshadowed by allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by frontline staff, including after the Haiti earthquake — albeit overseen from its UK office and largely predating her term in office.

The charity was criticised for a slow response once the claims came to light. But Byanyima says she persuaded her board to appoint an external commission to scrutinise what went wrong, make recommendations, share them publicly and implement them.

Then in 2019 she won the race to run UNAids, which was also under pressure to reform following the allegations of staff harassment. She stressed her experience in handling management crises, and the need to focus on campaigning and working with community groups.

She also drew on her experiences of HIV, which devastated Uganda. The disease killed her brother, whom she says died ultimately not from lack of treatment but from stigma, which had dissuaded him from regularly attending a clinic.

Four decades after Aids was first identified, and continues to kill up to 1m people a year, she is focused on community activism to lead the response and to mobilise governments to introduce more enlightened policies.

Some argue that agencies like Oxfam and UNAids require strong technical programmes to deliver services as well as community activism and campaigning. For Byanyima, drawing on her own skills, the priority is on the latter.

Reflecting on her own management approach, Byanyima says: “You tackle power head on, analyse who has it, build structures where it is more shared and a voice is given to everyone. It’s a servant kind of leadership, where you put yourself perhaps at the back in order to let others lead, and see yourself as an enabler of others.”

Three questions for Winnie Byanyima

Who is your leadership hero?

Michelle Bachelet. She has values, cares about social justice and is a feminist. She was a victim of a brutal dictatorship who turned her pain into public service; a medical practitioner who served in the public health system and studied military strategy to understand the minds of those who had killed her father. She was president of Chile, fought inequality, was a champion of reducing inequality in Latin America and reformed the education and health systems. When it was time to leave power, she respected the constitution. She lives a simple life and her style of leadership is humble. That’s the kind of leader I respect. 

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

My father always insisted that you have to stand up for what is right and pay the price if you must. Don’t follow what everyone is doing. It’s not about being popular, it’s about values and doing what is right.

If you were not a CEO/leader, what would you be?

I love gardening and community organising, working especially with young people with learning difficulties.

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