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Traits of an Outstanding Leader: A Primer for the Next UN Secretary-General


Gaza schoolboys run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO
Gaza students at a school run by the UN mission in Palestine await a visit by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, June 2016. The next UN leader takes office on Jan. 1, 2017. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

At the end of this year, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will complete his 10-year tenure and the ninth secretary-general will take office on Jan. 1. Whether the new secretary-general will be male or female, most would agree that he or she be someone with strong moral courage and integrity; act as a voice for the world’s most vulnerable people; and embody the ideals and purposes of the UN.

The UN Charter describes the secretary-general as “chief administrative officer” of the organization, who also performs “such other functions as are entrusted” to the office by the Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council and other UN organs. The Charter empowers the secretary-general to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

These guidelines define the powers of the office while granting it considerable scope for action. However, the secretary-general would fail if he did not take into careful account the concerns of the 193 member nations, while upholding the values of the UN and speaking and acting for peace, even at the risk of disagreeing with those governments. The Charter gives scant information on the qualifications needed for the UN’s top diplomat and chief administrative officer.

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Does leadership depend on empowering others to follow or does it demand something much more? Equally important, what exactly is the secretary-general’s role? Many people have suggested that the UN’s most senior official should either be a secretary or a general, while others say the person must be both and more. The world’s utmost diplomat must use her independence, impartiality and good offices to prevent conflict, broker peace and stand up for human rights.

The debate over definition is addressed in “Secretary or General?: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics,” by Simon Chesterman, who writes that the tension between these roles — being secretary or general — has challenged every incumbent. This book brings together the insights of senior UN staff, diplomats and scholars to examine the normative and political factors that shape this unique office with particular emphasis on how it has evolved in response to changing circumstances, such as globalization and the onset of the “war on terror.” The difficulties experienced by each secretary-general reflect the ambivalence of states toward entrusting their security, interests or resources to an intergovernmental body. The secretary-general must be a person, then, with strong interpersonal and communication skills, able to navigate smoothly in our increasingly multipolar world and drive a global transition to sustainable development. Chesterman, dean and professor of law at the National University of Singapore, is also the secretary-general of the Asian Society of International Law and editor of the Asian Journal of International Law. Additional reading by Chesterman is a chapter in Global Governance Volume 21, No 4: “The Secretary General We Deserve.”

“The UN Secretary-General and Secretariat” (2nd edition), by Leon Gordenker, is a new edition of this accessible introduction to the role of the secretary-general. It continues to offer a keen insight into the UN — the Secretariat and its head, the secretary-general — summing up the history, structure, operations, strengths and weaknesses of the global institution. Gordenker, emeritus professor of politics at Princeton University, provides an ideal introduction for students of the UN and other international organizations. It is a clear, concise presentation to the substantive work of the UN’s permanent staff and the role of the secretary-general in policy development.

“The Great Convergence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World,” by Kishore Mahbubani, prescribes solutions for improving global institutional order in the 21st century and diagnoses seven geopolitical fault lines that need the most serious attention and reform. Mahbubani served two stints as Singapore’s ambassador to the UN and was president of the Security Council in January 2001 and May 2002. Currently, he is the dean and professor in the practice of public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore.

“The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership,” edited by Kent J. Kille, describes what Secretary-General Trygve Lie, the first person to hold the job and a Norwegian, called the “most impossible job on earth,” a position that is as frustratingly constrained as it is prestigious. The secretary-general’s ability to influence global affairs often depends on how the international community regards his moral authority, and this book suggests that past officeholders have drawn on their own ethics and religious backgrounds, as diverse as Lutheranism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Coptic Christianity, to guide them in handling the UN’s goals. Contributors to “The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority” offer case studies of all seven former secretaries-general who preceded Ban Ki-moon, the current UN leader, establishing a comparative survey of each officeholder’s personal religious and moral values. From the forbearance of Lie during the UN’s turbulent formative years, to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian, and the UN in 2001, the studies detail the environmental and experiential factors that forged these secretary-generals’ ethical frameworks and analyze how their “inner code” engaged with the duties of office and global events. Kille, the editor, chairman and associate professor in the department of political science at the College of Wooster, is also the author of “From Manager to Visionary: The Secretary-General of the United Nations.”

“Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter,” by Gautam Mukunda, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at the Harvard Business School, looks at how and when individuals make a difference. By identifying and analyzing the patterns of their careers and exploring the systems that place these leaders in positions of power, the book sheds light on how we can better identify the best leaders and what lessons we can learn from the process and the result. Mukunda profiles a mix of historic and modern figures, from Thomas Jefferson to Winston Churchill, telling how they came to power and how they made the most important decisions of their lives.

Officeholders have adapted their own styles of leadership to the office of secretary-general. Previous leaders, such as Kofi Annan, were known for their strong public image as advocates; others, such as Ban Ki-moon, are viewed more as bridge- builders or bureaucratic administrators. “Political Ethics and The United Nations: Dag Hammarskjold as Secretary-General,” by Manuel Froehlich, explores the foundations of the political ethics of Hammarskjold, the second UN Secretary-General and a Swede, and how they influenced his actions in several crisis situations. Hammarskjold’s innovations, such as the creation of peacekeeping forces, the use of private diplomacy and the concept of an international civil service, were bold attempts at translating the aims and principles of the UN Charter into concrete thought and action.

“Next Best in 2016? The UN Secretary-General Must Be a Reformer,” an analysis by Stephen Browne and Thomas G. Weiss, provides a useful account of the interaction between the top UN official and member governments. Browne is director of the Future United Nations Development System (FUNDS) and a fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Weiss is director emeritus of the institute as well as Presidential Professor of Political Science at CUNY. They write: “UN member states and secretariats normally respond to emerging problems by creating new mechanisms, often putting existing UN organizations in new and unworkable configurations but virtually never getting rid of old institutions. Cumbersome responses to food security, migration and health are just three recent examples: many organizations at the table but without any unifying approach.” A good secretary-general, they argue, must be equipped with deep knowledge of the organization — and even charisma – to get the job done.

“Powers to Lead,” by Joseph S. Nye (2010 edition) asks what qualities make a leader succeed in business or politics. In an era when the information revolution has dramatically changed the playing field, as old organizational hierarchies have given way to more fluid networks of contacts and mistrust of leaders is on the rise, he writes, our ideas about leadership need redefinition. Through his book, Nye, University Distinguished Service Professor and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, offers a broad assessment of leadership today. He notes that many people now believe that the more authoritarian and coercive forms of leadership — the hard-power approaches of earlier political eras — have given way to soft-power policies to attract, inspire and persuade rather than dictate. Nye argues that the most effective leaders are actually those who combine hard and soft power as situations demand.

“Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace” ( 7th edition), by Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth W. Thompson and David Clinton. This classic study continues to be the longest-living text for courses in international studies. The latest revised edition includes Morgenthau’s original work, supplemented by a 40-page introduction by the editors: Thompson, a former director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia (who died in 2013), and Clinton, the political science department chairman at Baylor University. What follows the introduction are the perspectives of a dozen statesmen, scholars and observers each offering insights on Morgenthau’s concepts as they relate to current crises on every continent.

On a lighter note, while “Star Trek” — pure science fiction — celebrates its 50th anniversary, there may be lessons to be learned from its leaders, as plumbed in this article, from Business Insider, “6 Effective Leadership Styles We Can Learn From Star Trek,” by Aine Cain. To boldly go where no one has gone before, you’ve got to be an awesome leader, Cain wrote. Throughout the “Star Trek” series, captains and commanders have taken very different approaches.

In his book “Primal Leadership,” Daniel Goleman (with co-authors Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee) concluded that people tend to fall into one of six leadership styles, as exemplified by “Star Trek” commanders: the visionary, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard; the coach, Capt. Jonathan Archer Shin; the affiliative leader, Capt. Kathryn Janeway; the democratic Capt. Benjamin Sisko; the pace-setter, Capt. James T. Kirk; and the commanding personality, Gowron, a Klingon.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joanne Myers is director of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs’ Public Affairs Programs, for which she is responsible for planning and organizing more than 50 public programs a year, many of which have been featured on C-SPAN’s Booknotes.

Previously, Myers was director of the Consular Corps/Deputy General Counsel at the New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol, where she acted as the liaison between the mayor of New York and the consulates general. Myers holds a J.D. from the Benjamin C. Cardozo School of Law and a B.A. in international relations from the University of Minnesota.

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Traits of an Outstanding Leader: A Primer for the Next UN Secretary-General
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