What does it take to be a leader in a changing global environment? And where will we find men and women who possess the necessary qualities for leadership? According to David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, both questions are matters of grave concern.
Harris came to the Princeton University campus Feb. 23 to give a public talk on Leadership in a Changing Global Environment at an event cosponsored by the Center for Jewish Life and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.
“A leader or statesman must offer vision combined with moral and physical courage. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela are good examples,” he said. “I’m afraid with all the partisan bickering in the United States today, we have too many politicians and not enough statesmen,” he said.
Harris, author of six books and scores of articles, has headed AJC since 1990. He has been honored for his international humanitarian work, including his efforts to enable the emigration of one million Soviet Jews, his behind-the-scenes role in the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, and his role in the struggle to repeal the UN “Zionism is racism” resolution. He has a blog on the Jerusalem Post website and is a featured contributor to the Huffington Post.
Speaking before about 50 persons, including Princeton Township Mayor Bernard Miller and his wife, Ruth, board members of AJC Central New Jersey, Harris led off the discussion by asking audience members to describe the traits they thought were prerequisites to leadership. Answers ranged from passion, confidence, patience, and honesty, to willingness to take a stand and humility.
When asked by Harris to name public figures who are (or were) effective leaders, responses showed a clear generational difference. Undergraduate and graduate students in attendance cited Bill Gates and Steven Spielberg; older persons listed Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. Everyone, however, agreed on Abraham Lincoln.
Once Harris established the criteria for leadership, he elaborated on his worries about filling the void. “Leaders have to be willing to take risks,” he said. “They must stand up for what they think is right, even if it means not following the advice of the people around them.
“Unfortunately, the political atmosphere in the United States today doesn’t encourage this kind of behavior.”
He cited the example of President Harry S. Truman who, against the recommendation of his secretary of state, George Marshall, recognized the State of Israel in 1948. “Marshall told the president if he went ahead with the decision, he might not vote for Truman in the next election, but even that threat wasn’t enough for the president to compromise his beliefs,” said Harris.
Another area of concern, he said, is “the changing ratio of power in the world,” specifically the economic rise of China, and how the United States will be able “to compete against a form of capitalism that gets things done without considering human rights.”
“Since World War II, the United States, even with its imperfections, has been the main force for prosperity and good in the world. But what if it had been China, instead of the U.S., who had played the lead role?” he asked. “Would all the good things have happened?”
One way for the United States to maintain its “mission of a more humane world,” suggested Harris, is to promote global leaders from organizations like Oxfam, Amnesty International — and the American Jewish Committee.
“People who work for these agencies tackle HIV/AIDS and climate change, for example, issues that have no respect for boundaries and borders,” Harris said. “As a result, they have the experience and expertise to deal with many different governments.”
Asked what he would stress as a qualification for a leader in the 21st century, Harris responded: The acknowledgement that you will not be able to achieve your objective working alone. Rather, he said, a leader must strive for “harmonization with the people around him.” He related this to his experience on a crew team.
“No matter how many leadership qualities you have,” he said, “unless you can foster a team with a shared rhythm and a shared goal, the boat’s not going anywhere.”