This week, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali died. His passing has led me to reflect on the dangers and demands of leadership, and why so many people fail. When he was in office, he did a mediocre job. On his watch, the Rwandan Genocide took place leading to deaths of 800,000 people. He failed to mobilize the UN system and the international community to tackle the problem when the early signals indicated that the situation was incendiary. In his autobiography he blamed primarily the Americans (Bill Clinton and Madeline Albright) for their unwillingness to support him. And it was true--the US provided very little support for Boutros-Ghali.
He also failed to reform the UN, a bloated bureaucratic institution beholden to conflicting political forces. Of course, UN reform was an overwhelming and daunting task as the UN was, and had been since its inception in 1945, primarily a container for the competing and often divergent interests and demands of all of the nations of the world. Generating agreement, support and alignment on any program or initiative was an almost impossible undertaking for previous Secretary-Generals, and for Boutros-Ghali.
On January 18, 1993, Boutros-Ghali was on the cover of Time Magazine’s international edition. The article about him stated: “A year after taking office, Boutros-Ghali will not admit to disappointment, but it is evident that his ambitions to help shape the architecture of a new world order have run into trouble. Under his stewardship the UN has dramatically expanded its peacekeeping mandate – only to find itself stymied, even rejected, on several of its recent initiatives. Though the secretary-general acts at the behest of the Security Council, he is being saddled with much to blame. Rightly or wrongly the Secretary-General has become the lightning rod for dissatisfaction with the UN, and, more generally, widespread frustration at the way in which nationalist ambitions and ethnic hostilities are threatening to convert the desired new world order into the very opposite. Never mind that the UN, for all it good intentions, lacks the military force, political leverage, perhaps even the moral suasion to fulfill its expanded mandate.”
A primary reason for lack of progress, Boutros-Ghali thought, was due to insufficient support from the United States – and he was very public about this point of view. In January 1996 Boutros-Ghali gave a lecture to students at Oxford University where he stressed in his speech the importance of the secretary-general’s position being independent and not beholden to the interests of any one country. He also called attention to lack of United States support for the UN and said that there was an “urgent need to find new ways to finance UN operations as the Unites States refused to pay its contribution.” His speech was followed up by an article in the prestigious journal, Foreign Affairs.
His words were considered to be too provocative by many in the United States. Indeed, he angered the White House and some members of Congress. Senator Bob Dole, the Republican Party candidate for president led the attack, openly mocking him by calling him “Boo-trus, Boo-trus” in his speeches.
Boutros-Ghali wrote of what it was like for him during this period: “I looked over a collection of recent American journals, op-ed pieces, and newsmagazines; most carried nasty articles about me. I had, I read, entangled the United States in Somalia and taken command of its forces there; I had prevented President Clinton from bombing to stop the perpetrators of war crimes in Bosnia; I had tried to impose global taxes in order to aggrandize my power at the United Nations; and I had blocked the admirable efforts of the United States to reform the United Nations. Despite polls showing the vast majority of American citizens favored the United Nations and wanted to see it strengthened, I was portrayed as responsible for America’s lack of faith in the United Nations and Congress’s unwillingness to pay huge American financial debt to the United Nations. In reality, the Congress’s turn against the United Nations and refusal to pay what the United States owed…dated back to the 1980s, well before I had arrived at the United Nations. I was even unpopular with some friends of the United Nations and some former employees, who seemed to prefer the United Nations remain as it had been in the cold war years: morally superior and generally passive. To them, the new secretary-general had taken the world organization down a dangerously activist path.”
The press attacked him as being arrogant, abrasive and heavy handed. He was generating too much disequilibrium and people did not know how to deal with him. Boutros-Ghali wanted to meet with the Senate Foreign Relations committee and explain his goals and request greater participation and support from the United States. Madeline Albright, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, tried to get him to call it off. She said he was “massively unpopular on the Hill. He is the butt of jokes. He doesn’t present his case well to Americans. He is too elliptical.”
For Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in his five-year tenure as Secretary-General of the United Nations, stone-throwing at him was a daily phenomenon. The attacks culminated in his removal from the post as the world’s most powerful (or is it powerless) statesman. After serving for one term he was not reelected due to a successful campaign launched by the United States. But to understand why he was attacked, it important to understand what threat he represented to the United States.
Boutros-Ghali tried to provoke the Americans to be more responsible in how they interacted with the UN. But many Americans perceived the UN to be a large and wasteful bureaucracy riddled with civil servants from around the world who did little but shuffle paper and have expensive lunches. Their inefficiencies led to slow responses in troubled hot-spots such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and Bosnia. Many Americans were tired of funding this “bloated parasite” that showed little if any return for the investment. Given their tiredness, they were reluctant to make financial contributions and contributions in terms of political support.
Boutros-Ghali needed to speak to the American people to help them understand that the institution was playing a vital role in the world and truly represented hope and a better future for peoples in Third World countries in particular. There was learning to be done on all sides, and the leadership task was to put the spotlight on that learning work, so that United Nations would ultimately be in a better position to contribute to its mission.
If you are going to exercise leadership, you will get attacked. People may see change as a threat to their identity and their community, and therefore do what they can to thwart change by neutralizing the change agent. They might be afraid of change because the change triggers feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability, therefore they seek to retreat or hold on to what they know. They might oppose change for ideological or political reasons and dig in their heels as a way to defend their interests or advance their cause. They might believe the change agent is simply wrong. No matter what the reason, if one takes on the role of change agent for a demanding challenge then one should be prepared for opposition, resistance, and even personal attack. How one deals with opponents, critics, and stubborn groups, may well determine if the change succeeds or not.
As a lightning rod, you are the conduit for people’s expressions of frustration, fear, and anger, but also the desires, hopes and aspirations of many people as well. The challenge for the change agent is to have a set of principles for being a lightning rod and deflecting the “sticky” attention from one's own person back onto the work of change.