Lessons in Leadership: Values, Cooperation, Preparation and Trust

Lessons in Leadership: Values, Cooperation, Preparation and Trust
Itonde Kakoma moderates a discussion with former interim President of The Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza (left) and representatives of the African Union at the National Dialogue Conference in Helsinki. Photo: Riku Isohella

Lessons in Leadership: Values, Cooperation, Preparation and Trust

By Mr Itonde Kakoma, Executive-In-Residence, Global Fellowship Initiative, GCSP

The past year has been characterised by an accumulation of distinct yet interwoven crises. COVID-19 has exposed pre-existing societal fracture points and geopolitical fault lines. Only a few states, most of which are led by women, have put coherent and timely measures in place to deal with the pandemic. Despite these outliers, what has been most jarring is the sheer lack of decisive action and resolve to address an unequivocal threat to our collective peace and security. While leadership in itself is not enough – institutions and systems also matter – monumental global changes require that more attention be paid to who is leading the world and what characteristics we should look for in them.

I have had the honour of working alongside and learning from three global statesmen, all in their post-presidencies: former US president Jimmy Carter; for the past seven years, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari; and over two years until his untimely death, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa. This document contains personal observations gleaned from advising them in pursuit of peaceful settlements to violent and political conflicts. While my work for them pertained to the specific contexts of international peacemaking and diplomacy, I believe that the lessons I learned from working with these former statesmen are applicable to other arenas, especially in this tumultuous and unpredictable period in global history.

Drawn from my time alongside former president Carter, the first lesson in leadership pertains to values. The key issue here is one of being clear about your moral compass, what grounds you, what gives you a sense of purpose and drive in life – not solely with respect to yourself, but to yourself in relation to others. This is fundamental to leadership. Values matter, but it does not end there. What I took from my time with Jimmy Carter was that my personal values – even if they are rooted in a broader community of belief – should not prevent me from engaging with others who have different sets of values and beliefs, even if I may vehemently disagree with them. Carter believed that in order to achieve a peaceful settlement to a conflict he could hold strongly to his core values and yet still engage with those individuals who needed to be spoken to and worked with, especially if it meant that human lives could be saved and the scourge of war ended. So, values matter, yet they should not exclude the possibility of engaging with those with whom we may disagree – and even strongly disagree.

The second observation pertains to my work with former president Ahtisaari. From him I learned that partnerships and cooperation are crucial: to put it plainly in his own words, “you can’t do a damn thing alone”. Be it on a high-level political track or during intercommunal dialogue, Martti Ahtisaari consistently demonstrated that the strength of his mandate as a peace mediator rested on his ability to cooperate effectively with others – be they individuals, states or organisations – that have influence over and impact on his efforts to achieve his overall goal. Ahtisaari did not take on an assignment unless and until he was sufficiently clear about the type of backing and support he would receive from all concerned parties. This approach meant that he would not be isolated in his efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement through dialogue and would receive broad and substantial levels of support. So my lesson drawn from my time with him is about the importance of cooperation and partnerships that strengthen an individual's ability to deliver on his/her mandate.

The third observation drawn from my exposure to and work with former president Mkapa is that of the value of proper preparation. I observed the importance of this factor in all of the 45 preparatory sessions I participated in over an intensive two-year period aimed at facilitating dialogue among political leaders in crisis. Mkapa required an extensive review of the basic facts pertaining to any issue he was dealing with, most often raising questions rather than coming to conclusions; constantly exploring fundamental conflict dynamics with regard to issues, interests and actors; and rigorously studying each element of the given situation before each meeting of the principal parties. Mkapa’s commitment to preparation, despite his having deep knowledge of the history of the matter with which he was dealing, meant that he did not see his own knowledge and experience as a sufficient basis on which to make current decisions. He knew that in order to be an effective leader, preparation matters.


All three men demonstrated extraordinary leadership. Collectively, while very different individuals, there is one other consistent lesson that I drew from them: their trust in their team. All three leaders – despite already having a depth of knowledge of a situation and a breadth of related contacts – surrounded themselves with people whom they not only relied on, but entrusted with appropriate responsibility.

I am 42 years old. I was 30 when I started to work for Jimmy Carter. He had been working for the equivalent period of my lifetime on the same issue that I was tasked to deal with. And yet, despite my youth, he entrusted me with the power to advise, facilitate and engage on his behalf. The same was true of both Ahtisaari and Mkapa. I was not trusted just because I was a member of their organisation, but because they believed that I was able to see things as they were, even if what I saw did not please all stakeholders. This attribute of trust extended not only to those with whom they worked directly, but was a key ingredient of their ability to enable confidence with, among and between conflict parties.

I derived these lessons from my time working alongside three global statesmen – and am hopeful that the future will allow me to work with women of equal standing. This is especially the case now, because considerable data shows that gender may have direct consequence for the quality of leadership. Even so, these three men embodied fundamental leadership characteristics in pursuit of a greater good that are particularly applicable to the uncertain and tumultuous period we are living in: values, cooperation, preparation and trust all matter and are more likely to enable concerted efforts than self-interested action is able to do.

Last autumn, on the margins of a global summit, convened by the Club de Madrid, on the future of multilateralism, peace and security, I was privileged to share a conversation with Finland’s former president, Tarja Halonen. She was Finland’s first woman president, is the chair of the Board of the University of Helsinki, and serves on the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Mediation. In conversation with her I took the opportunity to raise some of these observations on leadership that I have presented above. Her response was penetrating. Recalling a conversation she had with Latvia’s former head of state, Halonen said that “Nordic states are those countries where women are leading and men are still smiling”. And while this point was made light-heartedly, what followed was more profound. Halonen continued to say that in the past women in government were given responsibility for areas deemed more characteristically women-appropriate, such as education, health and social welfare, while men were assigned to traditionally male-dominated areas such as security, defence, and economic and foreign affairs.

But here is the point: the consequences and impact of COVID-19 demonstrate that these so-called “feminine” sectors are precisely those that have ensured greater resilience in the face of a global pandemic, thus fundamentally changing perceptions of what true leadership will look like in our collective future.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the written texts published by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the GCSP or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in written publications submitted by a writer.

Mr Itonde A. Kakoma is a 2020-2021 GCSP Global Fellow (Executive in Residence). For the past seven years, he held several senior positions at CMI-Martti Ahtisaari Peace Foundation, most recently as Director for Global Strategy. He previously served as Assistant Director for Conflict Resolution at the Carter Center. He has advised and facilitated high-level peace processes and has recently been appointed by The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) as their Head of Delegation and Permanent Representative to the African Union.