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On Great Men and Women

Fall 2009 Tête À Tête

On Great Men and Women

greatmenandwomenAssessing the world’s leaders – past, present and future – with the President & CEO of the International Crisis Group

Q: So, Ms. Arbour, let us talk about your views on leadership in this new century…

A: I should preface my answers with some general observations. First, I have still not answered in my own mind whether I believe that people matter more than institutions or vice-versa. I understand that it is best to have great institutions led by great people. But I am still not sure of who carries whom. Is it leaders who make institutions, or institutions that carry their leaders? I suppose it depends; and in an ideal scenario, there is a perfect symbiotic relationship between the leader and all of his or her constituencies.

In general terms, I have to say that I find the personalization of leadership a difficult subject. It may come from my professional commitment to equality and the long amount of time that I have spent working in the judiciary, where professional contribution is somewhat depersonalized. That is why judges wear uniforms and often refer to themselves in the third person, as “the court.” Although this may sound bizarre at times, it is a reflection of a greater deference to the office than to the office-holder. And again, in the judiciary, the Chief Justice is officially no more than a primus inter pares, except for the occasional case where he or she also happens to be a genuine intellectual leader.

In my work within the UN, I also saw leadership as somewhat diffuse, although the organization is very hierarchical. There are several leaders – not just the ultimate leader – who constitute the leadership body of such a large organization. And I am not talking here about the distinction between leaders and managers. I believe that even in the lower echelons of an organization there are leaders – both formal and informal.

Finally, I believe that there is a difference between successful leaders and admirable ones. The appreciation of both will obviously vary with time and, as we all know, history may be kinder – or not – than contemporary appreciation as to whether a person has been successful or admirable, or both.

Q: Which world leaders impress you today?

A:  Barack Obama impresses me. I hardly need to elaborate on the reasons. His intellectual strength, his moral grounding, the political acumen which allowed him to triumph after an 18-month internal political fight of quasi-epic proportions should be enough to impress even the most cynical observers. Other people impress me, but I am not sure that you would qualify them as ‘world leaders’ in the conventional sense. I think that they are important leaders who operate on the world scene. I am not sure that there are many people who lead the world. I am thinking here of Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, or of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. At a time of unprecedented global threats, there are very few people whose power, influence and interests transcend their national borders, their traditional zones of influence, or their narrowly defined interests abroad. Maybe we just do not currently have the kinds of institutions or mindsets that would allow for world leadership. Democracies – the preferred form of national governance – do not lend themselves to sustainable leadership that is prepared to advance the long-term global good at the expense of short-term national pains. Non-democratic leaders do not produce exportable leadership, as they usually do not even need many leadership qualities to govern domestically. Finally, great leaders must invariably be the beneficiaries of a good historical fit: they will have been the right person for their time. It would be interesting to speculate about the difference that it would have made had President Obama been seized with the 9/11 crisis, and President Bush with the global economic one. Context, in other words, is a large component of successful leadership. Opportunity – or lack thereof – will often make or break a person with great leadership potential.

Q: Who are ones to watch?

A:  I think that we need to watch leaders who have recently been handed opportunities, and whose outlook will be critical both nationally and regionally on the peace and security agenda, as well as on development issues. I can think here of Jacob Zuma, Benjamin Netanyahu and Morgan Tsvangirai.

There is no question that the leaders of China, in particular, and of India and Brazil, among others, will continue to have a growing influence on the global economy, as well as on global issues, such as climate change.

Q:  Who is your favourite historical leader?

A:  Nelson Mandela.

Q:  Which countries are producing disproportionate numbers of global leaders in different fields?  Why?

A By disproportionate, you must mean per-capita, as opposed to ‘a lot more than anybody else.’ In any event, it must be the US – essentially because Americans believe that they are born to lead, both personally and as the ‘indispensable nation.’ The current dominance of American culture includes American political culture, which promotes the personalization of leadership and the disproportionate impact of mere celebrity. American wealth, and the entrepreneurial spirit that is also reflected in large American philanthropic endeavours, contribute to sustaining leadership in non-political fields such as the arts, health, science, etc.

Leadership is therefore generally understood under this US/Western model. This leaves little room for an appreciation of leadership that is less personalised and more conducive to collaborative, community-based initiatives where ideas take shape in a collective way, and credit is more diffused. As developing countries take a larger place among the international power plays, we may see cultural changes in the appreciation of leadership attributes.

Q: How does Canada fare in this regard?

A: You remember the story about the lobster tank in the restaurant? A client was worried because the tank had no cover, so he told the manager that it was dangerous, as a lobster might jump out (and what – run away? Or eat a client?). In any event, the manager told him that there was nothing to worry about because these were Canadian lobsters: “As soon as one gets close to the top, all the others quickly pull him down”.

But Canada fares well, I think, on the more ‘collaborative’ leadership model – leading international initiatives, whether on banning landmines or on developing the concept of Responsibility to Protect; that is, on the call for broad-based mobilization and the creation of consensus.

Q; Are there major problems or global issues for which you fear there is at present insufficient leadership? If so, which ones?

A: As I mentioned before, our current political structures are not conducive to effective leadership on issues that require long-term solutions – at least in democratic regimes. It leaves the long-term to those who can secure their power without having to worry about short-term popular support to ensure periodic re-elections, and to international organizations which are not supranational and therefore cater to a combination of short-term national interests – rather than to a longer-term common good. In other words, we have no guardians or promoters of a long-term international public interest – except in the non-governmental sector, where there are good ideas, but there is little power. This is not very encouraging. And this is why it is so difficult to get the right traction on climate change – for example – and on aid to development, fair trade, global health issues, and so forth.

We also have serious shortcomings of leadership on conflict prevention. The only political forum for robust action on the prevention, as well as the management and resolution of, conflict would currently be the Security Council, and its jurisdictional restriction to “threats to international peace and security” conveniently permits it to decline to play that role when coercive measures would be called for in the face of internal conflicts. In such cases, there are few leadership voices willing to advocate for measures that would override state sovereignty – particularly if there were even a remote possibility that these could one day apply to them.

Finally, I believe that there is currently a weak leadership – worldwide – on religion. While all religions purport to call for a virtuous pursuit of the common good, religious leadership has failed to prevent the divisive effect of religious affiliation – not to mention the rise of extremisms almost unparalleled in purely political movements.

Q:  Is there any necessary difference in leadership style or impact by women at high global positions from that of men in high global positions?

A:  There is an insufficient critical mass of women in ‘high global positions’ to allow us to identify gender-based differences in style of leadership at that level between men and women. In addition, the process of socialization that permits a few women to attain such positions is likely to blur characteristics that could otherwise be attributable to gender. Having said this, in most societies today, women are at the centre of positive human and social interactions. Although they do not have a monopoly on virtue, they are universally less prone to violence than men, and often entrusted with cooperative activities – including their collective responsibility for bearing and rearing children. On that basis, one could assume that they would lead with more interest in others, empathy, caring and inclusiveness. But all this will remain a hypothesis until enough women are allowed to lead on their own terms.

Q:  Turning to your erstwhile vocation as a top jurist, what role do you see for law or the rule of law – nationally and internationally – in the prevention of strategic conflict? Can it have a role in the creation of strategic conflict?

A:  The Rule of Law is currently the ‘flavour of the day’ in the development agenda – repackaging concepts like good governance, transparency and accountability as desirable outcomes, if not conditionalities, in development assistance. I am concerned, however, that the prevalent understanding of the concept of the Rule of Law is an impoverished one, reduced to ‘rule by law.’ This is not unlike the exportation of an impoverished version of democracy that was often reduced to electoral mechanisms. There is, of course, a lot more to democracy than the holding of periodic free and fair elections: things like a credible law enforcement machinery; a free, independent, competent and properly resourced judicial system; a free press; and a participatory civil society infrastructure, even if only a modest one. When most of these are lacking, the rush to elections often does little more than legitimize the power of a strong executive, riding on the shoulders of a formal, but not significant, legislative branch – with little in the form of checks and balances to ensure proper governance.

In the same way, there is more to the Rule of Law than ‘rule by law’ to overcome human arbitrariness. In its more sophisticated acceptance, the Rule of Law includes the requirements of equality before and under the law, equal protection and benefit of the law, and, of course, the guarantee that no one is above the law. In mature democracies, where the concept has really taken root, the Rule of Law, in my view, also incorporates all of the fundamental human rights guarantees that protect individual and minority rights so as to ensure that, even in a system of democratic majority rule, constraints are placed on the exercise of state power.

There is no doubt that the pursuit of political models of democratic governance under the Rule of Law, with both concepts understood as containing broad – rather than narrow and formal – requirements, would advance the peaceful resolution of conflicts, both domestically and internationally. Conversely, the acceptance of formal, impoverished democratic models risks exacerbating grievances by legitimizing pure power plays. And the same is true for the promotion of a narrowly understood Rule of Law that would ‘legalize’ unconscionable practices, such as racial or gender discrimination or the availability of torture warrants.

Q:  As states become ever complex (and indeed, larger) in this new century, do you foresee capacity and legitimacy problems for judiciaries around the world in keeping political branches of government in check?

A: I think that the role of the judiciary in governance has yet to be properly understood and supported in the development agenda. In many developing countries, law enforcement and judicial systems are remnants of colonial models that are today barely sustainable in the context of rich, developed countries – and indeed not particularly suitable to the general culture of, and the modern problems facing, the developing world.

And as emerging democracies mature – particularly under constitutional models with entrenched Bill of Rights guarantees – we will likely see the so-called legalization of politics that we have witnessed in Canada; for instance, since the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We have also seen this unfolding in South Africa, for example, as the Constitutional Court has occupied its proper place in constitutional adjudication.

So it is not really a question of courts ‘keeping governments in check.’ It is a question of courts being fully integrated as a branch of governance, as arbiters not only of private disputes in the application of the law, and in broader disputes about the interpretation of the law, but also as guardians of constitutional principles. In environments where grievances by minorities are not properly addressed by the political system, recourse to credible judicial redress can be a powerful force for social peace, and ultimately for progress on the political front. But I am not sure that we are currently investing enough in the development of competent, independent, credible national judicial systems.

I should add that this has been exacerbated, in a sense, by the growth of private international commercial arbitrations, which has permitted the bypassing of corrupt or otherwise inadequate national courts in favour of a parallel – but suitable – dispute resolution mechanism. This, of course, supports international trade, but it does little to encourage redress of the domestic shortcomings of a national system that remains the sole provider of justice in all other respects: criminal law, land and family disputes and, of course, human rights violations and other forms of abuse of power by the state.


Louise Arbour has served as President & CEO of the International Crisis Group since July 2009. Previously, she was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (2004-2008), as well as a judge on the Supreme Court of Canada (1999-2004).


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