However, somehow this picture of emerging excellence does not work. Not only will politics undoubtedly ruin the day but we still have no real concept of what ‘the best’ means. Is ‘the best’ candidate more like Kofi Annan, Angela Merkel, Bob Geldof or the Dalai Lama? What is that person like who speaks for ‘we the peoples’, stands up to the P5 and remains standing for 7 years without a scratch to themselves, their office and the values they are supposed to represent?
Campaign groups often state that women candidates or Eastern European candidates are ‘ok’ but that we shouldn’t let either category prevent us from finding ‘the best’. They thus suggest that neither category is likely to be one from which ‘the best’ will emerge. Somehow ‘the best’ is better than women and men who were president, prime minister, foreign minister or leader of UN agencies; who hold advanced degrees, speak several languages and have long and distinguished careers in politics and international affairs. Is it that the qualifications and experiences of women and Eastern European candidates count less, in other words, are we just looking for someone who matches our traditional ideas of good leadership by a white, Western man? Or is there more to this?
The answer to the question of who is ‘the best’ lies in many of the responses to UNA-UK’s voting cards, that people are asked to fill in. There we find the silly ones and the ‘I-haven’t-really-thought-about-it-so-I-nominate-my-mother’ ones. There are calls for entrepreneurs Richard Branson and Bill Gates, former politicians like Bill Clinton, celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Justin Bieber, and many (perhaps more realistic) calls for former and existing UN agency leaders, politicians and diplomats. However, at first glance, one person in particular stands out, with many cards calling for her candidacy: Malala Yousafzai. Why would an 18-year-old girl be considered suitable for this role when she clearly lacks the experience to run a large, global organisation as chief administration and to act as ‘chief mediator’ between member states? The answer lies, of course, in what Malala personifies.
Today celebrity politics has become more or less mainstream. Obama’s three year as senator provided only marginally more experience of politics than the (much longer) business experience of Donald Trump. Both share a cult of personality that captured the imagination of the people in an age of increasing voter apathy in mature democracies. Is it that we want similar for the Secretary-General? Do we want to believe in a person, follow their lead and bank on their charisma as a guarantee for their effectiveness? Can we trust that proven business leadership can translate to political leadership? How will those who have experience of giving directions and see them followed deal with the daily negotiations, the cajoling, coordinating, rallying and indeed the rejections that are part and parcel of diplomacy and international politics? If we want a charismatic leader, how can we possibly find ‘the best’ candidate? A strong personality does not guarantee effective leadership, nor can we measure prior to appointment who will turn out to be a great leader.
Is it illusory to think that we can find ‘the best’, especially if ‘the best’ really means the perfect candidate? Perhaps ‘the best’ is just the best on the day? Just like hiring a new employee relies on whoever is available and applying when a company or organisation advertises, the UN and the global public must choose ‘the best’ from the field that is offered and not dismiss candidates because of their gender or nationality. It is worth remembering that sometimes jobs are advertised and nobody ‘exciting’ turns up; sometimes we may be surprised by people who grow into the role. After all, on paper Kofi Annan was one of the least qualified candidates and Rwanda happened on this watch, yet he turned out to be one of the most popular and most effective SGs, with Kille (2006) judging his strategic leadership style as best suited to the role of SG. An open, fair and transparent recruitment process should improve our chances of discovering who is ‘the best’ on the day.