Why Investing in Learning is Crucial
Why Investing in Learning is Crucial
Part 2 of 3 in a series of reflections from Ambassador Christian Dussey, Director of the GCSP.
Ambassador Christian Dussey is now approaching the end of his tenure as Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. For eight-years, he was faced with both challenges and opportunities. This 3-part series is a compilation of his key reflections including: leading and navigating in turbulent waters, the importance of learning, and experiences in leading a non-profit organisations.
Part 2: Why Investing in Learning is Crucial
As intelligence analysts in the early 1990s, my colleagues and I were able to read daily almost all that was published or collected during the last 24 hours about a country or topic to which we were assigned. That’s become a much more challenging task for today’s analysts, who find themselves on the constant receiving end of a fire hose of information, disinformation and misinformation – all of which must be processed, analysed, shared and potentially acted upon quickly.
When I was a young attaché as a member of the Swiss Diplomatic Service, I would wait in line to use the only computer in the embassy that had a router with access to the internet. Today, technology, in all its many degrees, devices and applications, has significantly transformed how we perform diplomatic tasks, such as learning about a country or an issue, accessing decision- and policymakers, and influencing them.
Even in the eight years since I became director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), the dynamics of intelligence, diplomacy, security and peacebuilding have expanded and accelerated. The demands of our changing world are more plentiful and complex. And so is our need to keep up with it all.
My time at the GCSP has given me a unique chance to combine my passion for international affairs with a firm conviction in the power of education, especially professional and continuing education. It has shown me the impact of education on all our efforts to build a better, safer world. As the late Kofi Annan said, “Education is, quite simply, peace-building by another name. It is the most effective form of defense spending there is."
Professional development has become critically important for all of us, whether we are at the start of a professional career or in a more senior role. Keeping up with change and anticipating emerging challenges requires skills, tools and knowledge. This is particularly true given that the traditional three-stage approach to our working lives – education, career, retirement – is slowly disappearing and giving way to a multi-stage life combining a variety of careers, breaks and transitions.
Thanks to the foresight and trust of my parents, who had no opportunities themselves to attend college, I had the privilege to study at some of the world’s leading institutions in international relations. Unfortunately, the resistance to investing time and money in continuing education is strong. So, my successive decisions to invest time and a significant amount of money in my professional development (civilian and military) were often met with incomprehension or disbelief by my superiors and colleagues. And yet, without continued education, I would not have achieved the career that I wanted or ever imagined the opportunities and adventures it has given me. My education has been a series of transformative experiences that have always, and will always, deeply shape my mind and attitude.
Close to 6’000 participants have attended GCSP courses since I joined the Centre in 2013. They included government officials (diplomats, military officers, policymakers), representatives of international organisations and non-governmental organisations, business leaders, politicians and journalists from more than 184 nationalities. GCSP’s mission is to help them become more effective and creative, and better able to anticipate upcoming challenges in peace and security.
During my tenure, I observed a striking difference between the education and training of diplomats and military officers. The latter worked for institutions where training and education are highly valued and firmly ingrained in their DNA. In contrast, a large majority of the ministries of foreign affairs do not consider professional development a priority.
Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca said: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” This begs the question: what specific skills or competencies should we focus on as leaders to remain prepared, effective and able to seize the opportunities to create a better, safer world – particularly in an environment that will continue to be turbulent for the foreseeable future? Let me suggest a few capabilities:
- Critical thinking: When faced with massive flows of information, ambiguity and complex situations, critical thinking helps us make sense of them, de-complicate complex problems, and learn from the experiences they provide. Central dispositions for thinking critically are “attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, and seeking the truth”. What’s more, critical thinking diminishes the effect of “group think” or cognitive bias, which led to so many blunders in history. It helps minimise “warfare by memos”, which is unfortunately a common plague at many organisations.
- Strategic thinking: We designed the GCSP library so that books, and carefully placed shelves, come together on one side of the room to spell “THINK” and another side to spell “ACT”. The “Think” and “Act” library is a creative reminder to all of us to think and act anew and always in combination, one with the other. It is also a reminder that the current obsession with instantaneous results and short-term objectives, and the decreasing attention span obscure our need to pause and think strategically. Strategic thinking makes use of our mental agility, intuition and creativity to observe, analyse, get different perspectives, and define a strategic outcome, a vison. Strategic thinking also gives coherence to a complex, unstable, and multi-vector environment. It supports strategy development, which is the art and science of combining resources in certain ways and sequences to achieve specific objectives (competitive advantage, impact or victory). Each profession or sector labels this concept differently: result-based management for the non-profit sector, military strategy in the armed forces, and business strategy in the private sector. Although essential principles of strategy remain universal, there are, unfortunately, almost exclusively taught in Defence universities or colleges and business schools. The latter started teaching strategy only half a century ago, in the 1960s, whereas military strategic thinking has been taught for many millennia. Leadership impact and judgment depends on the effective application of the principles of strategy. Therefore, I encourage everyone to invest time and effort to improve one’s mastery of strategic thinking.
- Creative thinking: “Thinking outside the box” cannot be prescribed by a superior. It is not magic. It is part of a conscious learning process. Creativity like charisma might be an inherent ability in some people. But it is not the case for most of us. Creativity is like a muscle that needs to be trained. It can also be nurtured by curiosity. In 2004, I read a fascinating book entitled “The Medici effect”, which demonstrates how innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines and ideas. This became the inspiration for a unique programme at the GCSP for people in transition in their career, a second “collider” in Geneva after the one at the famous European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Imagine a general, molecular biologist, ambassador, banker, nuclear physicist, FBI executive, artificial intelligence expert, artist, novelist, humanitarian worker, politician and journalist sharing desks in the same open room. What happens is that cross-pollination occurs by itself. Ideas collide. Inspiration and new projects emerge from random encounters. I find these kinds of creative approaches to be the best way to foster imagination, accelerate change, challenge bias, break silos, and develop innovative solutions. Additionally, the diversity embedded in these initiatives becomes a spectacular force multiplier and a prime asset to creative thinking.
The bottom line is this – investing in ways to enhance our ability to think critically, strategically and creatively, and investing in opportunities to further our knowledge and skills, are one of the best investments we can ever make. My hope is that all of you will continue to embrace the educational opportunities around you. It’s good for you and your careers, and for the secure and peaceful world we’re trying to build and carry forward to future generations.