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Lessons of Leadership from Kofi Annan

A man with a deep skin tone talking on stage

Today, Kofi Annan, pioneer and peacemaker, passed away at 80. As we mourn the passing of our friend, we wanted to share some of the wisdom he offered just one month ago at a panel during our Africa: Leaders convening. With his trademark charm and sharp wit, he shared his hard-won lessons about leadership, earned throughout a lifetime spent working toward a better world.

By the end of the gathering, he left the audience of 200 young African leaders inspired and optimistic to change their world.

But that was no surprise; it was an effect he had on everyone.


Never accept the status quo. Change is always possible.

I came of age at the time of Ghana’s independence. It was an exciting period. All of us young people were extremely excited and felt that, finally, we had a possibility of doing something for our country. But the most remarkable thing or the biggest impact on me as an individual was the change that came along with independence.

In the colonial era, almost everyone in real responsible position was an outsider, was an Englishman: the head of the police, the head of the army, the judges, the magistrates. There were some Ghanaians on it. But after independence, suddenly you see Ghanaians in key positions, Kwame Nkrumah as prime minister.

And you realize that change is possible—even very radical change. So you grow up, not intimidated by change, not accepting the status quo, not saying, “This is what we do,” but “This is what we can do, what we should be doing.”

And that also gives you as an individual that energy to move forward and take on challenges. In fact, sometimes people will tell you, “You are dreaming. Why do you want to do this?” My answer is I love to dream, and it always starts with a dream. If you don’t dream, you won’t even begin to do it.

But change is a process, not an event

The other problem you are going to have is we are on the continent where we’ll be talking about change and reform. And… the difficulties and the challenge we face, change is a process. It can take a long time. It’s not an event.

I recall event at the UN when I started a major reform, within six weeks, somebody wrote a letter to New York Times complaining that the Secretary-General has not reformed the UN in six weeks flat.That day, I was having lunch with all the members of the Security Council, and I initially start with remarks. I opened my remarks by apologizing for my failure to reform the UN and its agencies in six weeks.

Sergey Lavrov, the current Russian foreign minister, was then the ambassador in New York... He said, “Mr. Secretary-General, what are you complaining about? You’ve had more time than God had in creating the world.”

So I responded, “Mr. Ambassador, you are right, but God had a unique advantage. He works alone!”

And change doesn’t happen alone

You never get the chance to work alone. There’s only one goal: you need to work as a team, you need to cooperate.

As an athlete in my college days, I learned lessons, including passing the baton, which still sticks with me today. Because passing the baton means that you cooperate, you trust, and you respect the other athletes and the other runners and that collectively, you’re going to win. And if you do it well and you don’t drop the baton, and you train, and you respect each other, you make a difference.

...And when you get into a key position, build a team. You cannot do it alone. And putting together a good team to work with you is extremely important. Make sure everyone in your team brings something to the table. Don't appoint them because you like them; appoint them because they have something to offer. If you appoint them simply because you like them, you're all going to fail in the end.

Your best advantage is to be underestimated

I recall, when I was director of the budget—the first African to be named director of the budget (of the United Nations)—and there was a meeting in New York. I had come in from Geneva then, and we went to the meeting in the conference room, sat around the table, said we’re to start at 9:00.Five past 9:00, nothing happened.

At 10:00, I said, “What are we waiting for?”

They said, “We are waiting for the director, the new director of the budget.”

I said, “I’m here!”

So we started the meeting, but you don’t let these sort of things throw you, you go on, and you do your work.

...The best advantage you have is when the adversaries underestimate you. Use that. Don't be boastful, don't feel insulted. Carry on, and don't take on unnecessary fights. It's negative energy, it takes time away from you.

One is never too young to lead

I remember the first confrontation I had with one of my bosses who was about 30 years older than I was. I had then moved to Addis from New York (the United Nations) and they sent somebody to come and discuss an issue on which we disagreed. And the fellow who came to discuss the issue with me had never met me.

We discussed it back and forth, and he turned as he walked out of the door and looked at me and said, “But you’re young.” I wasn’t questioning that. And he repeated, “You are young,” as if that’s an insult. Meaning you should know your place, you shouldn’t be writing these sorts of letters asking these sorts of questions.

And that experience also taught me that one is never too young to lead. And one is never too old to learn!