Modesty and humility aren’t equal to weak leadership

Saturday 18th August, 2018 while waiting for a haircut at a Nairobi city saloon, I read on the TV screen that Koffi Annan former UN Secretary-General was dead. My mind raced back to the period of the Genocide in Rwanda when Koffi Annan was in charge of UN peacekeeping. Then an undergraduate at Makerere University, I watched as Koffi Annan was grilled on television for the UN’s failings in preventing the Rwanda human tragedy.

In my eyes, the African-man in Koffi Annan appeared calm and humble throughout the extremely tough interview – but even more important, he exhibited excellent mastery of the issues that led to the genocide in Rwanda. He didn’t duck responsibility for the UN’s failings. I can only use three words to describe what I saw then: humble, authentic, and remorseful.

Watching Koffi Annan become UN Secretary-General a few years later, albeit helped by the USA’s love-hate relationship with Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali, affirmed my learning from Annan’s earlier TV interview that we can be modesty and super leaders at the same time.  The humble pie, as opposed to the traditional business traits of aggression, super-confidence, brashness, can take you places after all

In Koffi Annan, the world learns a fundamental lesson at effective leadership – that you can be quintessential at leadership and humble at the same time. Leadership is not about strong-man cum militant posturing – to the contrary, quintessential leadership is attained when we appreciate the human and cultural sensitivities of the leadership turf we are on, engaging others with respect and empathy, while at the same time staying the course that gets us to that endpoint.

Jens Stoltenberg NATO Secretary-General on his Twitter handle summarises so very well Koffi Annan’s humility and how that didn’t make him a weak leader:

“Saddened to hear that Kofi Annan has passed away. His warmth should never be mistaken for weakness. Annan showed that one can be a great humanitarian and a strong leader at the same time. The UN and the world have lost one of their giants.”

For students of effective leadership, Koffi Annan exhibited traits that are essential to have in their leadership toolbox: modesty, authenticity, empathy, and firmness in steering discourse towards the end-point – the so-called ‘Z-point.’

The world remembering Annan and his leadership traits:

BBC News: “….the way he quietly but firmly reminded world leaders, however powerful, that they needed to put their duty to their citizens above their political careers.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres: “…a guiding force for good”. “In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations. He rose through the ranks to lead the organisation into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination,”

The ‘hard’ Koffi Annan:

  • Iraq War

The US government used strong-man tactics to invade Iraq in the so-called coalition of the willing. Koffi Annan and the UN were defeated – and Iraq was invaded. The rest is history. However, authentic and humble as ever, Koffi Annan put it on record that the Invasion of Iraq was illegal

  • Kenya peace:

Koffi Annan saved the Kenya nation-state when it was on the brink of becoming a failed state. He was able to support the warring parties agree to a power-sharing deal that ended the worst post-election violence in Kenya. In a Facebook tribute, Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who signed the agreement, called Annan “the man who stepped in and saved the country from collapse”.

  • Chair of The Elders:

In 2012 Koffi Annan was appointed Chair of The Elders a peace and human rights advocacy group started by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

  • The Invisible arbiter of global conflicts:

Via the Foundation named after him, Koffi Annan has excelled in ‘private diplomacy’ – he has provided informal counsel and participates in discreet diplomatic initiatives to avert or resolve crises

Leaders learning from Koffi Annan:

  • Strong-man/woman posturing has no place in quintessential leadership
  • Modesty does not equal weakness; you can be modesty and firm at the same time.
  • Being firm as a leader doesn’t mean battering people and leaving them for dead – to the contrary, it’s understanding where others are coming from in doing what they do, and selling your ‘correction-path’ to them; consensus and buy-in always come first – attaining consensus is a sign of solid leadership
  • Getting consensus takes a lot of time – patience is an obvious virtue that forms part of this  quintessential leader’s toolbox
  • Authenticity – modesty leaders aren’t swayed by what others do. They are authentic and remain true to their personal values.

In recognition of Koffi Annan’s contribution to global quintessential leadership – we hope to see University professorships, scholarships and entire colleges named after him; but even more important, that the Koffi Annan leadership paradigm shall be taught on leadership courses

RIP Koffi!



Categories: You, the Leader!

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