Leadership Notes #26

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What to Read

  1. Toxic Culture and Mindfulness

  2. Thinking About Your Career Timeline

  3. When Experience Backfires

Great Books

Two masters of the craft break down how to read a poem. Required reading for those who want more lyrics in their speech and imagination in their conversation.



Interview: Pär Stenbäck


Par Stenbäck is a Finnish journalist, author, political scientist, educator, and peace activist with an extensive career in Finnish politics and international development. He represented the Swedish Liberal Party in Finnish Parliament from 1970-85, the last eight years of which he spent as the party leader, and was the Minister of Education and of Foreign Affairs from 1979-83. After leaving Parliament, he held consecutive Secretary General positions at the Finnish Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and the Nordic Council of Ministers until 1997. In 1999, he was bestowed the honorary title of “Minister” by the President of the Republic of Finland.

He is a founder or founding member of numerous national and international organizations, including the International Youth Foundation (1991), the International Crisis Group (1995), the Finnish Children and Youth Foundation (2001), and the European Cultural Parliament (2001). 

Since 2017, Stenbäck has acted as Chairman of the New Foreign Policy Society in Finland, a platform for debate and discussion about world affairs and foreign policy. He is also a Council Chairman of United World Colleges (UWC) Red Cross Nordic and of UWC International, and has been a regular columnist for the Helsinki daily newspaper, Hufvudstadsbladet, since 2004. 

Potolicchio: What is the importance of education in fostering global peace?

Stenbäck: Education can promote global peace by offering young people values and knowledge that can help them to form a world view which is based on tolerance, humanity, and democratic elements. The United World College Movement wishes to bring students from more than a hundred nations together for two years and thereby create a growing global leadership cadre who is dedicated to cultural bridge-building in a polarizing world. The UWC colleges graduate only a few thousand students every year, so many more are needed. Unfortunately, not all education is automatically peace-oriented; schools in many countries can also promote chauvinism and bias.

Potolicchio: What is the most pressing humanitarian crisis occurring right now?

Stenbäck: No doubt Syria, the re-building of a society in ruins and the need to give millions of Syrians hope for the future. Of the forgotten or overlooked crises you must mention Congo and Yemen.

Potolicchio: When it comes to peace and global humanitarian crises, are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Stenbäck: I wish to be optimistic, despite the suffering in too many areas. I refuse to believe that the global community and its leaders have sunk into a state of irrecoverable passivity. The Red Cross and Red Crescent movement has seen ups and downs when it comes to practical implementation of the extensive web of humanitarian agreements meant to protect the vulnerable populations. Nevertheless, I must accept that there is today a lot of confusion when it comes to humanitarian priorities.

Potolicchio: What was your goal in creating the New Foreign Policy Society?

Stenbäck: Again, "confusion" is the catchword. I realized that many good citizens in my home country are at loss: Where is the world heading? The new cold war, the raise of China, the wave of populism in Western democracies, trade wars, migration, etc. People need to come together and discuss, longing for facts and wishing to re-affirm their values in an ever-changing global political landscape.

Potolicchio: What was, to you, the key to effective leadership in an organization as wide-reaching as the IFRC?

Stenbäck: True global organizations or institutions like IFRC are ungovernable anomalies, but they exist and function nevertheless…We wish them to be democratic organizations, but global democracy remains a dream. The membership is extremely varied, several official languages and many governance cultures must co-exist. As Secretary General you need to respect these given frames, but at the same time play on the different capabilities, resources and aspirations of the large membership when raising support for the catastrophe of the day. In Red Cross/Red Crescent work you need to be both technically skilled and able to appeal to the emotional motives for mobilizing the resources needed.

Potolicchio: What is your advice on changing people's minds?

Stenbäck: If I compare politics of today with my own experience way back, I think many mainstream politicians seem to believe you can convince voters with technical and factual arguments. They are forgetting the emotional dimension of politics. You need to speak to their hearts, not only to their wallets and brains. You may have all the facts right, but you may still lose the argument. Therefore, populists with fake facts and a strong emotional message can win the day. In my recent book [Democracy Under Threat?, 2019] I speak about good and bad populism. Why not use “positive, constructive populism” to change people's minds?

Potolicchio: What is a book you would recommend to an aspiring global leader?

Stenbäck: I tend to recommend the last book I read to my friends-- in this case, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? by Robert Kuttner (Norton 2018). A global leader should look carefully at the obvious risks caused by the dark sides of capitalism and free world trade, which can lead to populism and an increasing alienation of citizens.

Potolicchio: The education system in Finland seems to be revolutionary. As the former Minister of Education, what advice would you give to other countries?

Stenbäck: No country should try to copy the Finnish education system because it is based on culture, history and political system. But certainly, there are elements that could be useful. When asked about our secret in Puerto Rico (that wanted quickly to reform its education), I answered: You need one hundred years of respect for learning and education. The reporter was disappointed…

The main components leading to the high Finnish PISA marks are:

  • 5 years academic training of teachers and this for the best students (one tenth of the applicants).

  • "Leave no child behind"-- extra support for a pupil lagging.

  • Do not reform the school system only because a new government takes over. Education is not a good subject for political experiments.

  • Discipline in class is the guarantee for an efficient learning milieu for all students.