For all of my problems with the place – byzantine library systems, fractured community, and an unimpressive international curriculum as opposed to the hugely international student body – today was one of the days that is hard to find anywhere outside of Oxford. After running a few errands in the morning, I was off to spend the day at Rhodes House, where two big-name speakers were giving talks: F.W. de Klerk, the former President of South Africa, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor from my alma mater and the former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Granted – these were closed events, really only open to Rhodes and Weidenfeld Scholars (it’s good being part of the anointed meritocracy!), but still, it’s these kinds of events to supplement the formal education that can make Oxford a wonderful institution, a kind of airstrip for Establishment public intellectuals and public figures from the Anglophone elite to hold court on today’s topics.
As it turned out, I was lucky to even get a seat at the de Klerk talk: it was a packed Milner Hall at Rhodes House, including many of my friends from the Rhodes, Weidenfeld, and other communities around Oxford. The main topic of de Klerk’s talk was, broadly, leadership — which made me a bit uncomfortable (more details below) — and I ended up impressed by it overall. In his view, there were more or less four qualities associated with leadership:
- Knowing when to become a leader. There are, de Klerk said, plenty of smart, capable people in the world, but one of the crucial challenges in life is knowing when to take action, and how to shift from being an armchair commentator, or even a pundit, to someone who takes action. As it turns out, in de Klerk’s case, this all happened rather happenstance. I asked him, later in the day, whether he was ambitious, or what his own conception of leadership was when he was around 25 years old, and he answered that much of his early career had been a meandering route from law to, eventually (and unexpectedly) politics. And his own rise to leader of the National Party hinged on winning a close internal party vote after P.W. Botha suffered a stroke and ceded leadership. Still, crucial throughout the whole experience was getting involved with the NP, and being in some, any position, where he could become a public figure (as distinct from relentless vain ambition).
- Making decisions grounded in values and morality. Essentially, you need to have a sense of right and wrong distinct from sheer expediency or careerism, wedded to an objective assessment of reality, if you want to make good decisions. When asked later about his support, or more precisely, attitude towards apartheid throughout the 1960s and 1970s, de Klerk answered that there had been a genuine desire on the part of NP leaders to create a federal system of what would become nation-states in Southern Africa for the Black African population. In itself, there was perhaps nothing perverse in a nation-state solution for Southern Africa. At the same time, by the late 1970s, he underlined, it had become clear that not only had this vision failed, but it was in some sense evil. And when confronted with manifest injustice, leaders must become ready to move for radical change.
- Accepting real change. There’s always a danger of indecision, or of making half-steps in life. In the South African context, there was, perhaps until the crucial 1989-1991 conjuncture, a real fear that Moscow would somehow ally with the ANC to engineer a Communist takeover of Southern Africa. The South African Communist Party, a Stalinist organization, had strong personnel overlaps with the ANC, and it would take both clear vision as well as grit to push the country through the open window of the early 1990s when it came to engineering a dismantling of the apartheid system.
- Accepting that change will eventually eat even you. Leaders eventually have to step down. A big part of the challenge with Point 3 is recognizing what look like windows in history: when to try to exercise visionary leadership to a country or organization to push it through what looks like a window. But history keeps moving, and eventually it will take down leaders, too. It’s important, de Klerk said, not to resist this pink slip, but to accept it — a part of life is trying to execute change within these crucial windows, but also accepting that, regardless of your results during the window, there comes a time for you to step down and let the next generation take up the reins.
Some of the content of Professor Slaughter’s talk was either personal or off the record, and I don’t feel comfortable reporting all of it, but it also turned out to be a great experience. The listed title was “Family and Foreign Policy,” and in the talk, Slaughter gave a thoughtful and moving overview of the problem women face as they look to careers in foreign policy and development. To name a few, briefly:
- Work in the policy world is still extremely gendered: “development” is seen as a female job, whereas “foreign policy” (guns + negotiation) is seen as a man’s job. True, some women have succeeded in breaking out of this mold: Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, for example. But, Slaughter emphasized, as female trailblazers (or African-American trailblazers) in these roles, there was actually added need to appear “tough.” She recalled an anecdote from her days as a student at Harvard Law School in the 1980s, when she met Condi in a graduate seminar with Samuel Huntington. Then, especially as a black woman working in foreign policy, Condi seemed to feel the need to constantly spout her toughness credentials, spewing forth a torrent of ICBMs, MIRVs, SLBMs, etc. in the class.
- Career models and biological timing. It’s difficult for women to have children after 35, certainly 40. But many young ambitious women also find it daunting to think about having children when they’re younger than 35, and certainly 30. The optimal solution, it would seem is to aim (insofar as it’s possible) to have kids in your mid-30s, but then you run into family crises near the peak of your career. In Slaughter’s case, she had been appointed Director of Policy Planning (perhaps the second or third most prestigious job at State) in her late 40s or early 50s, which made sense — but then her two sons were ages 10 and 12, going through fundamental changes. Following her ambition meant letting down her children in some sense, particularly at a sensitive age. Ideally, if she could do it again, she’d recommend that women aim to be entering the most demanding parts of their careers when their children are either quite young (when kids are time-intensive but require perhaps less intellectual engagement or care), or when they’ve left for college. Sadly, for the woman who waits to have kids until her late 30s, this can mean putting off career advancement during the crucial period of the 50s. What we need more fundamentally are new ways of thinking of career timing.
- On this issue of career timing, Slaughter saw the current system as messed up for both men and women. As far as women go, there certainly remains room to be successful, if you’re willing to have the personal life of Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan, who are respectively divorced and never married, while at the same time having enjoyed massive career success. But nor are things rosy for men. Look at Larry Summers, she suggested. Summers, twice married, has had a hugely successful career in the eyes of the world (although destroying the Harvard endowment and, arguably, the national one as well, are certainly downsides). But he’s been President of Harvard. He’s been Secretary of the Treasury. He’s been Director of the National Economic Council. Ambition, intellect, and being born into a supportive, smart family can get you a long way in the United States, Summers’ career would seem to illustrate. But what then? What if you become Secretary of State at age 40? What then? What we need over the long term, more than career fulfillment, are familial relationships, and, less seriously, hobbies and passions that we’d be happy to pursue into perpetuity. I asked Slaughter afterwards about whether she thought she would ever become bored with her current job as Dean of the Wilson School at Princeton (a hugely demanding task). Perhaps, she thought. She might eventually like being US Ambassador to the UN if the job came up, and some Deputy Secretary of State positions interested her. But these were often short-term postings, and again, she got to do Policy Planning, she’s already gotten to work at great institutions – Princeton, Harvard, Chicago. There are dozens if not hundreds of talented people willing to take the UN Ambassador job, but there’s only one person in the world capable and willing of being a parent to her children.