What Kofi Annan taught me about leadership

By McKeel Hagerty | August 22, 2018

“No calling is more noble, and no responsibility greater, than that of enabling men, women and children, in cities and villages around the world, to make their lives better.” – Kofi Annan, “We the Peoples” United Nations report, 2000.

I have been blessed to meet some amazing people in my life. One of the most amazing of all passed away last week.

I met Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, in March of 2016 at the YPO Global Leadership conference in Dubai and spent about 30 minutes with him privately. I had the same impression of him as most did. He exuded strength, intelligence and compassion, a rare combination indeed.

What I remember best, however, was his voice. He had an incredible voice, deep, resonant and wise. You could move mountains with a voice like that, and in many ways Annan did. His seminal work with the U.N., which won him a share of a Nobel Peace Prize, and his later efforts through his own foundation and a global leadership group called The Elders, were seeds planted in time. Someday, when we’re living in a world that is healthier, less impoverished and more focused on the greater good, some of the credit will be owed to Annan and his vision of peace and prosperity for all.

He had an incredible voice, deep, resonant and wise. You could move mountains with a voice like that, and in many ways Annan did.

During our brief time together, we spoke about global organizational leadership, a topic important to both of us. At the time, I had just been elected as the international Chairman of the Board for YPO, a worldwide network of leaders who believe business can be a force for good. Annan, of course, had in 1999 argued much the same thing before the U.N., calling for business leaders to coalesce behind a global accord of “shared values and principles, which will give a human face to the global market.” That accord became the UN Global Compact, which challenges companies to uphold 10 principles of human rights, labor rights, anti-corruption and the environment.

As someone who studies leadership, I was fascinated by his views on getting things done. He shared with me that truly successful global organizations must have very local action. Leaders should focus on local matters, and that all organizations, large or small, can only be successful if they allow local flexibility and honor local leaders. Top down thinking must be very soft and only emphasize values and story creation, he noted. The real work is carried out locally.

He shared with me that truly successful global organizations must have very local action.

He also emphasized that leaders should always maintain a clear view of their message and then adapt it for specific circumstances, but that they should always have a clear bias for action over too much talking and thought. Even at the U.N., he said, he would rather take action quickly than debate every possible scenario – in other words paralysis by analysis.

Those are wise words for getting anything done in business or life.

I’ll remember them always.

Rest in peace, Kofi Annan, son of Ghana, citizen of the world. Humanity is in your debt.

Onward and upward.

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