At our 2015 YPFP Brussels Gala, D.H. Doyle, Chair of YPFP Brussels' Advisory Committee and a former Executive Director, gave a poignant speech on the objectives and message of YPFP and on thoughtful leadership.
It’s a great pleasure to be back at YPFP. An organisation that is very close to my heart. For those of you who don’t know me I was the Executive Director of YPFP Brussels for 4 years. I’m now chairing the YPFP Brussels Advisory Committee – which just means that I find it hard to let go. But I am speaking tonight in that capacity.
The objectives of YPFP
I was asked this evening to speak about the importance of young leaders in foreign policy. I think, especially this week, it is important not to forget that YPFP has objectives: to foster leadership, to create networks, and to develop the skills that young professionals will need in order to tackle the complex challenges of the 21st century.
Most importantly, we should not forget that YPFP seeks to do so in an inclusive way by invitation, by cooperation and by volunteering.
Before I came up here I checked my watch because it is now almost exactly a week since the first shots and explosions in Paris. Paris is a city where I used to live and a city which, in the course of history, has come to symbolise certain values, principles and, to a large extent, the very concept of citizenship around much of the world.
For all of us, this week has been visceral. This week has been viral. This week has been chilling. This has been a week when a stranger on a platform becomes a suspect rather than a fellow commuter. When the sight of a police car strikes you with terror rather than reassurance. When the sound of an ambulance fills you with fear instead of hope.
In such a world it can seem that instead of building a better future the trend is now towards destruction. Around the globe, and even perhaps in Europe, it seems that brinksmanship is back. Samson is the new archetype. The threat is to pull the temple down around you if you don't get what you want.
Follow me, or else. Give me what I want, or else. Conform, or else.
However, a shrill and panicked debate about our world would do the principles of Paris a disservice. The magnitude of what took place in Paris requires action but above all it requires thoughtful leadership.
Population, competition and leadership
I want start with a thought I had before the events in Paris which made me think about leadership at the start of the 21st Century. There have never been as many people on this planet than at this exact moment. That bears repeating: right now, there are more human beings in the world than at any time in our history.
That is startling. If you aren’t startled perhaps we need to think about it a little more.
Well let’s do that. There are more people to feed, to build houses for, and to educate right now than ever before. There have never been as many people competing for resources, jobs, space and for an advantage than ever before.
Now, this is not a new phenomenon. There were more people on earth than ever before last year and the year before that. Population growth and the challenges it brings are nothing new. The world population has been on a constant rise since the dual crises of the Great Famine and Black Death ended in the Middle Ages.
But let’s take a benchmark of leadership around 2000 years ago. Let’s call it the Julius ratio. His world was one which was relatively well connected compared to the first humans and he was undeniably a fairly successful leader. His name remains a synonym for leadership across languages today: Caesar, Tsar, Kaiser.
But when Julius was alive the global population was just 170 million. His entire global population would only be the eighth largest country in our world today. Today we are over 7 billion people on this planet. What is more: we are infinitely more connected. And yet we often think of leaders in the same way unchangeable way from 2000 years ago. Perhaps today Caesar would not have cut it.
The pace at which we have been growing as a species over the last few hundred years is also new and it is daunting. If you are eighty years old today then the world population has tripled in your lifetime. Eighty years? Sounds like a long time, doesn’t it? Well Pope Francis is 80 years old. And so, interestingly enough, is Silvio Berlusconi. Both – fair to say – leaders who are still young at heart but in very different ways.
Well, let’s say you are in your fifties as some of our parents are. Let’s say you are David Cameron or Barack Obama. The population of the world has more than doubled in your lifetime to date. In fact, it doubled back when you were still in your late thirties a few years before the millennium. Before you were even elected. It doubled, in fact, just a few years, before the events of September 11,2001.
The beginnings of YPFP
I mention that specific date of 9/11 for good reason. Because that event and the world it created is actually one of the reasons why we are here tonight.
In the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war a group of young college graduates working in internships in Washington, DC got together. They wanted to discuss the world in which they lived. They wanted discuss the world from a perspective of a new century and from the eyes of a 20 something year old that would have to live in it. They felt that this was not a discussion that was taking place on mainstream platforms or think tanks – so they decided to build their own.
They started meeting regularly and started Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. A few of them left to London and started a branch there. A few from London came to Brussels and here we are. We used to have our monthly meetings in Brussels at a bar on Place Luxembourg but within a few years we had the privilege of welcoming President Obama.
But when the first YPFP meetings took place what kind of world was it? It was a world that was changing rapidly in a new century. A world where technology promised so much. A world that could also be confusing, even terrifying.
Quite a challenge for a new generation. But it was a world that this new generation felt they needed to understand. A world that they believed would need well informed views and in which they would need to forge new skills to compliment old ones. A world, in short, that would require new leadership.
Leadership as “technology”
For me the global population trend means that the leadership systems we have evolved over millennia are coming under strain. And I want to pose a challenge to you tonight. There is nothing inherently good about leadership. It can be used for good or for evil.
Leadership is a human “technology” that we have developed to get complex tasks done. I used the word “technology” in the sense that it is a collection of techniques, skills, and methods. It is about balancing choices, interests, ambition and inspiration.
Leadership, when you strip away all the clever words is about social influence. Convincing people to come with you. Motivating them to act, to work with you in order to accomplish an objective.
Above all, leadership is about trust. And it is perhaps harder to trust people in a world of 7 billion than of 170 million people. Even Julius Caesar eventually ran out of trust. And that question of trust poses new challenges if you believe that the answers are simple. Because depending on the objective of an individual the skills of leadership can flip our ethics entirely.
Killers can have leaders too. Leadership can lead you to evil. It is not inherently good. The terrorists in Paris had a leader. We can call the events in Paris a conspiracy or a plot. Indeed they were. But such words imbue those events with a mystique that obscures certain facts. They involved meticulous planning, choices, communication, and action. Some of these terrorists were allegedly just common thugs before they were recruited. But they were recruited. They were convinced. They were led.
The disaffected and the disgruntled can be led. And a tiny minority can have a disproportionate impact when convinced to collaborate and inspired to act. Europe should know that only too well from our own dark history. Leadership is about action. You can lead a team of young professionals, a team of doctors or a team of terrorists. Let's not fool ourselves: people can be inspired to kill.
Therefore leadership alone, it seems to me, is not enough. You also need an understanding of the world based on the principles that not everyone agrees with you, that global problems are complex and that working with people can make the world a better place.
Where to start?
Well then, in a world of 7 billion people where do we start?
“You and I have to make a start and the best place to make a start is in your own community”.
Those are not my words but those of Malcolm X. A controversial human rights activist and charismatic leader who walked a fine line between calling for violence and for social justice. Those words come from a speech he gave entitled “the Ballot or the Bullet”. It’s a stark choice and one we still recognise today. He gave that speech in 1964. A date, as I just mentioned, when the world’s population is half what it is today.
The speech could be considered extreme, especially then. But it is a powerful speech in that it offers its listeners a clear choice. On that evening he presented a choice between democracy and violence. And that makes my point: leaders can call for either. The potential for both were there in that speech and in his leadership. And that is why he is so fascinating.
Complex communities and simple answers
“You and I have to make a start and the best place to make a start is in your own community”. Well, let’s look at this community. Your local community in Brussels just happens to be one that lives and breathes foreign policy too. This is an international city. A multicultural city. And yes, a city where a small group of people can also plan a major terrorist attack.
I grew in this city as well as in other places around the world. But in some ways, Brussels is different to other those places. It is something of a haunted city.
Like many cities in Europe our history still parades silently down the streets. Indeed, November is Remembrance Month where we commemorate the two World Wars that tore this continent apart. But Brussels is also haunted by its future in a very existential way: people fear what it will become or indeed what it will not become.
Most importantly for us: Brussels is haunted even by the present. Too often people cross paths here without seeing each other: a local and an expat; an expat and an immigrant. We take metros without saluting each other, we have conversations without hearing each other and we hold meetings without learning from each other.
“You and I have to make a start and the best place to make a start is in your own community”. As we have seen this week that can mean many things. The foreign policy community in this local community makes Brussels a global city. And people living in Molenbeek and Saint Denis are no less part of the story of globalisation, population growth, and cross-border movement than you or I.
This is a complex community. And this week we found out that it is really a microcosm of our complex world. So this week, wherever you are in the world, anyone who tells you the answer is simple is someone you should question.
Leadership is rarely simple unless it is blunt and hurtful. Violence is not a substitute for dialogue. Outrage is not a substitute for policy. If someone tells you the answers are simple bring them along to the next YPFP debate.
The promise of YPFP
Let me conclude on where this leaves YPFP. For those who know me in this room, you’ll be familiar with the response I have given when people ask about what it's like to lead YPFP. I say “it's like doing an MBA without the books”. Well, I've found that life is actually quite like that in reality.
It has been said that “There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen and there are people who wonder ‘what happened’. To be successful you need to be a person who makes things happen”.
Well, YPFP teaches you how to make things happen. Whatever you choose to do in life it teaches you to work with people. It teaches you to communicate. It teaches you to listen. It teaches you to set objectives and to overcome adversity. It teaches you to challenge the experts and the status quo. To ask, why? To ask, why not?
You have made a start in your own community. And tonight we should be grateful to the members and volunteer staff of YPFP for building a community that looks to improve our complex world by holding out a promise. If you want to change yourself, and perhaps the world, for the better come with us as we try –
to understand our differences;
to tackle our common challenges;
and to become better leaders together.
That is the message of YPFP.
And that, I think, is a message we can all trust in. Thank you.
D.H. Doyle, Chair of YPFP Brussels' Advisory Committee and a former Executive Director
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.