Bucknell Magazine: Leaders on leadership
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Inside her Port-au-Prince apartment for four days in September 1991, Erica Johnson-Meadows '85 dared not leave.
Bucknell Magazine asked distinguished Bucknellians — each a leader in his or her own right — to define leadership and articulate its most important qualities. Complete story
Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been overthrown in a coup d’état, and the streets exploded with violence. Rebels set roadblocks afire. Gun-toting men rode through the city in the back of pickup trucks, shooting people in the streets.
After spending more than a year as a health-care worker in one of the poorest areas of the city, Johnson-Meadows had become accustomed to the poverty and desperation. But this was anarchy.
"You felt like you were watching the world fall apart before your eyes," she says.
Disarray and upheaval
Johnson-Meadows remained in Haiti for several more years, continuing to work in health care and later as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Mission. In 1996, she moved with the U.N. to the Balkans, another site of disarray and upheaval.
"In many ways, the problems that followed the years of political unrest stemmed from leadership that went wrong,” she says. “In the Balkans, it was a complex scenario, with Franjo Tudjman, Alija Izetbegovic, and Slobodan Milosevic all in power. All of them were powerful leaders, but they were more interested in holding onto their power than in working on any kind of power sharing. Bosnia is still coming out of that dark post-war period."
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By way of contrast, as a U.N. electoral observer Johnson-Meadows notes how the “charismatic, tolerant, and inspiring” leadership of Nelson Mandela averted the widely expected chaos in South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections. Her experience there and with other high-ranking U.N. officials convinced her that effective leadership styles, while varying widely, can often mean the difference between order and chaos.
“I have worked with quiet, unassuming diplomatic types and with others who have been more the John Wayne, cigarsmoking,bombastic ‘take-no-prisoners’ types,” she says, “but each seemed to fit the mission and knew what he or she needed to do to get the U.N. mandate accomplished.”
Clearly, leadership matters today as much as it ever did. Human misery can be alleviated through leadership or exacerbated by its failure. Hurricane Katrina may well go down in history as much for the spectacularly bungled response to the disaster as for the power of the storm itself.
This past September, as the nation prepared for the 2008 presidential election season, during which the leadership potential of the candidates will be scrutinized endlessly, the University kicked off a 16-month national speaker series, “The Bucknell Forum: The Citizen & Politics in America.” Inaugurated with a talk by NBC’s Tim Russert, the series is bringing prominent speakers to campus to address vital topics such as leadership, citizens’ responsibilities, and the direction of our country.
For its part, Bucknell Magazine asked distinguished Bucknellians — each a leader in his or her own right — to define leadership and articulate its most important qualities. Among the commentators are two Bucknell faculty members, a newspaper editor, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large, several public servants, and an associate justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
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Posted Feb. 15, 2008
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