Former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young encourages building ‘relationships of respect’

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(Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

Andrew Young, former United Nations ambassador and civil rights activist, talked to students about the challenges of leadership at a talk hosted by the Yale Leadership Institute on Feb. 16.

Drawing on his experiences working with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his time as mayor of Atlanta, Young told his audience of roughly 40 students and Yale affiliates that being a leader is a “heavy burden” that requires “having a sense of responsibility” to those around you.

“Most leaders don’t want to be [leaders], and people who want to be leaders I worry about,” he said. “I think anybody in their right mind would run from leadership. The last thing I wanted to be in 1980 was a mayor. In fact, I have never wanted to do anything I’ve done!”

Young explained that he even tried to convince President Jimmy Carter against appointing him as the U.N. ambassador in 1977, arguing there were better qualified candidates for the position. However, Young’s connection to King convinced Carter to appoint him.

As ambassador, Young worked to build bridges between people who “didn’t talk to us.” While he was dealing with controversial matters, Young said, his work was necessary in the United Nations to build a consensus in order to move an ideal forward or backwards.

“The job of building coalitions and getting people to understand what you’re interested in or what they’re interested in is the challenge of leadership,” he said.

Young was ambassador during the height of the Cold War, and he told the audience that he befriended Russian ambassador Oleg Troyanovsky to help ease tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union “almost by accident.” Young’s daughter was a student at Swarthmore College, and when he dropped her off one day, the Swarthmore president told him to go meet “his friend” Troyanovsky at the U.N.

Troyanovsky and the university president had been roommates and tennis doubles partners while students at Swarthmore, and Young sensed an opportunity to “build bridges.” Their wives were also avid tennis players, and soon they were all playing “diplomatic doubles” every other week.

“We established relationships of respect. And when I needed him to abstain from a vote or when I needed his help … I had built a relationship [to make it possible]. That’s what leadership requires: relationships that are trustworthy. But that’s based on understanding and more on listening than on telling,” he said.

Before being appointed ambassador to the U.N., Young had been a prominent civil rights activist, working alongside King during the Civil Rights Movement. Quoting King frequently, he told the audience how King did not want to be a leader for the movement but was rather thrust into that role after Rosa Parks ignited protests across the country. King had gone down to Montgomery to finish his dissertation “in the smallest, quietest country town he could find,” away from anything “important,” said Young.

“That’s probably the way it happens more often than not,” he explained. “You can’t decide to be a leader; you have to be selected by people believing in you, trusting in you, and people push you into leadership.”

Young also commented on the role that technology plays in shaping that vision. Recalling the bombing on Pearl Harbor before the World War II, Young noted that the only way Americans could visualize the attacks was by going to the movie theaters. Now, he said, people not only see “what’s wrong with the world” everyday, but they see it multiple times a day.

“It seems to me that people are overwhelmed by the problems we face,” he said. “And that anxiety leads to fear, and fear leads to hatred … That hatred is born from ignorance but once you get to know your enemy [it lessens].”

“The world is so complex that not only does it require a new kind of leadership, but it requires a new kind of sensitivity … The main challenge of leadership is going to be to develop a vision we can all share. If I had to put it in one word, it would be survival. We realized that what Dr. King said was right: that we would either live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

The Yale Leadership Institute was founded in 2007 with the mission to enable Yale students to achieve their full leadership potential. For more information about the institute and future events, visit its website.

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