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Kofi Annan is an exemplary world leader exhibiting many traits characteristic of a good leader. His main leadership style reflects that of a strategic leader incorporating charismatic and transformational leadership. Annan was born into a life of leadership and his skills developed through the circumstances that he has experienced in his many and varied roles for the United Nations spanning more than 30 years.



Kofi Annan was born in Kumasi, Ghana in 1938. His family was part of the country’s elite, both of his grandfathers and his uncle were tribal chiefs. His father a noble of the Fante tribe (“Profile:Kofi Annan”, 2005). It could be said that Kofi Annan is a born leader and perhaps there is an element of truth in that but along with his genetic make-up Annan was shaped through experience and the teachings of his father.

One such teaching that Annan reflects upon is the lecture that his father Henry Reginald Annan gave him as a boy when Kofi chastised him for making an employee put a lit cigarette in his pocket when speaking with his father, as his father did not condone  smoking. His father sternly said, “he need not have done that… today you saw something you should never do. Don’t Crawl” (Ramo, Thompson & Waller, 2000, p.34). It seems that Kofi Annan has adopted some of his fathers qualities in that he is very centered and secure with an innate dignity (Ramo, et al., 2000, p.34). His upbringing has shaped his personality and he holds many of the general personality traits of a leader. He is self-confident, trustworthy, assertive, enthusiastic, warm and has a high tolerance for frustration, proven many times in the way he has handled the challenges of his role as the seventh Secretary General to the United Nations.

Kofi Annan’s sister Essie recalls how their father would hold mock court sessions as they were growing up, where he would try his children for their misdeeds.  He was interested in his children’s comportment and logic of argument. Essie recalls that Kofi never hesitated and often collapsed the proceedings with a well-timed joke (Ramo, et al., 2000, p.34). Annan has a sense of humour, a very important personality trait in leader. According to Dubrin, Dalglish, Miller (2006, p.33) humour adds to the approachability and people-orientation of a leader and can help to dissolve tension and defuse conflict.

Education and Career

Annan was very well educated in both the USA andGeneva. He achieved a degree in Economics and a Management degree and has subsequently received many honorary degrees from various universities (“Profile:Kofi Annan”, 2005).  He is an intelligent man, an important quality for someone at the top of an organisation and a quality directly correlated with leadership. His sister Essie recalls that when Annan returned from his studies in America “he had a certain sense of serenity…he looked calm, cool…he knew what he was about” (Ramo, et al., 2000, p.34).  It is of great importance that a leader understand their own values and ethics and to know what they stand for (Dubrin, et al., 2006, p.419).

Kofi Annan began his career with the United Nations as an administrative officer of the World Health Organisation in 1962. He then served with the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the UN Emergency force in Egypt, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and in the UN’s Headquarters in New York (“Profile:Kofi Annan”, 2005). During this time Annan dealt with some special assignments. These  included the repatriation of just under 1000 international staff and the release of Western hostages following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, leading negotiations with Bagdad over the sale of oil for humanitarian relief and being the UN special representative in Yugoslavia overseeing the transition in Bosnia and Herzegovinia from the UN protection force to a NATO led contingency. These unique experiences gave Annan a good grounding for his role as the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Kofi Annan was the first Secretary-General to be elected from within the UN and the first black African. At the time of his appointment the UN lacked direction, was unaccountable and close to bankruptcy. There was a desperate need for reform (“Profile:Kofi Annan”, 2005). Annan had a big task on his shoulders to streamline bureaucracy, create clearer lines of responsibility and manage the finances (“Profile:Kofi Annan”, 2005).  He has been able to manage these internal tasks to a certain degree  along with setting about mobilizing the international community in various projects such as HIV/Aids, his personal priority, establishment of the UN Millennium Development Goals and commitment to the special needs of Africa (“Profile:Kofi Annan”, 2005).

Strategic Leadership

Kofi Annan is a very strategic leader. According to Dubrin, et al. (2006, p.400) strategic leadership deals with the major purposes of an organization and is the process of providing the direction and inspiration necessary to create, provide direction to, or sustain an organisation. There are various components of strategic leadership including creating a vision, revolutionary thinking, anticipating and creating a future, gathering multiple inputs and higher-level cognitive activity.

Strategic Leadership

Kofi Annan is a visionary, a revolutionary thinker who anticipates and creates a future for the world. Dubrin,et al. (2006, p.403, 407) states that a truly visionary leader anticipates a future that many people do not think will come to pass. The vision must also be well communicated and implemented.

Annan’s visions are grand in nature and he has a big task resting on his shoulders in the fulfillment of his visions for world peace, aids, peacekeeping—no force, the environment, poverty and the special needs of Africa. All this under the watchful eye of the world. Ramo, et al. (2000, p.34) states that what Annan proposes, his vision, is nothing less than a world filled with dignified people. Where Sierra Leonean rebels would have enough innate dignity not to chop off the arms of infant girls. A planet where India and Pakistan would be dignified enough not to blow up each other, where the indignities of chemical weapons would be a thing of the past and where the world’s rich would be, yes, dignified enough to worry about the millions of Africans who will die of AIDS in the next two decades. This is the kind of world Annan imagines. It is the sort of world his very presence serene, quiet, intent-suggests. These are the very high ethical morals and values typical of a charismatic leader.

Charismatic Leadership

Annan has a very charismatic communication style. He is able to communicate in an open, colourful, imaginative and expressive manner, whilst creating a comfortable communication climate (Dubrin, et al., 2006, p.101). Annan’s speeches articulate a highly emotional message and he uses well chosen analogies and metaphors to appeal to the intellect, imagination and explain situations in ways that are understandable.  His speeches are often a call to action and eloquently delivered to achieve moving the audience in such a way. An example of the charismatic nature of Kofi Annan’s speeches is this extract from his speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in 1999. The speech centres around globalisation and how the worlds corporate leaders can make a choice to operate in a manner that takes into consideration the world at large.

“We have to choose between a global market driven only by calculations of short term profit and one which has a human face. Between a world which condemns a quarter of the human race to starvation and squalor, and one which offers everyone at least a chance of prosperity, in a healthy environment. Between a selfish free-for-all in which we ignore the fate of the losers, and a culture in which the strong and successful accept their responsibilities, showing global vision and leadership” (Dubrin, et al., 2006, p.416).

Annan is able to communicate with many different people on different levels and can choose the right level of language for his every audience . On occasion when he is visiting a country Annan has taken the time out of his overbooked schedule to sit, without moving and listen to ordinary people recount their story and what is happening to them (Ramo, et al., 2000, p.34).

Annan is known to be quietly spoken. He says of himself that he is strong and determined but people miss that because he is softly spoken (Ramo, et al. 2000, p.34).

In creating a future for the world Annan has gathered multiple inputs to formulate such plans as the Millennium Development Goals decided upon by all 189 member states at the Millennium Summit in September 2000 (“After the prize, no resting on Laurels”, 2001). This shows Annan’s leadership has a very participative style. It is important that Annan has the buy in of the member states or his visions will not be realised. As Annan said in his acceptance speech when appointed the seventh Secretary General to the UN  “Alone, I can do nothing. Together, we can irreversibly advance the frontiers of peace, dignity and justice for all human kind” (Annan, 1996, p.2).

Transformational Leadership

In addition to having a strategic leadership style and charisma, transformational leadership also encompasses the style of Kofi Annan, the position that he holds within the United Nations and some of the tasks at hand reforming the United Nations both internally as an organisation and externally inspiring the world to change.

Transformational leadership according to Dubrin, et al. (2006, p.105) serves to change the status quo by appealing to followers’ values and sense of higher purpose. A transformational leader will reframe issues to align them to followers’ values and a leaders vision. The leader will operate at a higher stage of moral development than followers. A transformational leaders vision will appeal to the followers end values incorporating the ideals by which a society or organisation should strive to live, and include justice, freedom and equality. Transformational leaders articulate problems in the current system and have a compelling vision of what a new society or organisation could be. Annan’s acceptance speech when appointed to the position of Secretary General demonstrates this kind of vision. It plays on followers end values, whilst appealing to the member states for the items that require change such as the financial assistance required from member states to fund the organisation and the work that it must do for the world and the benefit of all those who exist within it.

“To the nations and peoples of the world whose representatives are assembled here today, I say simply this: the United Nations is your instrument for peace and justice. Use it; respect it; defend it. It can be no wiser, no more competent and no more efficient than those Member States that now comprise and guide it. But those of us who serve you here pledge our every effort and energy to the causes set forth in the Charter. No nation needs to face or fight alone the threats which this Organization was established to defuse. But we cannot succeed without your political, moral, financial and material support and participation. Applaud us when we prevail; correct us when we fail; but, above all, do not let this indispensable, irreplaceable institution wither, languish or perish as a result of Member State indifference, inattention or financial starvation.” (Annan, 1996, p.2-3)


Traub (1998, p.44) comments that the secretary generalship is one of the world’s oddest jobs, half moral witness and half C.E.O. The division seems more like 10 percent and 90 percent. The Secretary General is the chief administrator of an international parliamentary system and the boss of 10,000 international civil servants. Kofi Annan is a very unique and amazing man to be able to handle such a role at the same time as working on something as major as world peace. Traub (1998, p.44) describes Annan’s gifts as those of character, attentiveness, self-possession, clarity, an utter lack of pretense and a kindness that seems to spring from an impulse of protectiveness. Jean-Pierre Halbwachs who has worked with Annan for 20 years and serves as the UN controller (cited in Traub, 1998, p.44)  says of Annan, “he has this uncanny ability to get people to shift their position without feeling threatened or without any tension”. Annan’s own core is pure diplomacy and conflict aversion. He is a very positive person and a powerful negotiator who does not like to be influenced by negative trains of thought particularly directly before negotiating, a highly motivational strategy (Traub, 1998, p.44). Annan learnt a lesson in positivism when in elementary school where a minister took a white sheet with a black dot in the middle and draped it over the blackboard. He asked the class what they could see and the response was the black dot. The teacher asked, why only the negative? What about the vast white spaces around the black dot?. This is a lesson that Annan has always remembered not only teaching positivism but that there are two sides to every story and more than one answer to a question (Omestad, 1998, p.36-37).

Williams (2000, p20-24) states that Annan’s major asset is his indispuitable charm allowing him to cause controversy without himself being controversial and cites his successful use of this asset in the way he has survived allegations of being an accomplice to genocide in  his earlier Srebrenica and Rwanda Missions.

Kofi Annan is constantly up against the worlds powers with differing agendas, often times on the brink of conflict. Annan upholds the highest of ethics in all of his dealings, he feels that his responsibility is always to ensure that there is peace, that you can work things out (Ramo, et al., 2000, p.34). This is a testament to him winning the Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with the United Nations in 2001. Ultimately it is how Annan handles the complex situations of the world utilising his skills and upholding his moral ethics and values and achieves success that makes him stand out.


Kofi Annan has had much on his plate during his two terms as Secretary General for the United Nations and during this time he has had to act from a macro point of view. One example was that he visited Saddam Hussein to negotiate and talk with him before the war on Iraq. It is very difficult therefore whilst tackling these kinds of tasks that Annan could also personally keep enough of a handle upon the day to day running of the UN as an organisation. It is these things that the critics are focusing upon as Annan’s second term comes to an end this December. Roane & Morrison (2005, p.34-35) discuss whether or not Annan was unable or unwilling to control the bureaucracy within the organisation that he was initially brought in to control. One issue that Annan has been embroiled in is the award of a contract in the oil for food program as his son worked for the company awarded the contract. Surely Annan in his position would not have an intimate knowledge of the contract or be in a position to control the tendering process. His staff would have been handling this and therefore have not conducted a conclusive enough job. Idealistically, there should have been lower management ranks in place to pick up on a problem of this magnitude before a contract was issued.

Ramo (2006, p.34) highlights that some believe Annan’s very decency stands in the way of preventing the indecent acts he so badly wants to stop. Perhaps he is too nice. Critics find his world view and outlook naïve, calling it Star Trek Planet and chastise him for his willingness to do business with anyone referring to Annan’s negotiations with Saddam Hussein. Some critics consider Annan’s soft spoken manner a weakness. Does his high diplomatic polish make him a successful negotiator or a pushover for dictators (Omestad 1998, p.36-37)?

Ultimately whilst Annan has achieved so many great things for the world his major weakness has been in controlling the bureaucracy he was brought in to reform (“Annan and After”, 2006). It is a big job for one small man and as the secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan may be the easiest target for the missed opportunities to change an institutional culture that obstructs the accountability of the UN (Roane, 2005, p.34-35). At the end of the day no man can achieve so much alone and whilst Annan has made serious attempts at reform he has not had the necessary support of the member nations to achieve more.

Traub (1998, p.44) comments that the secretary generalship is one of the world’s oddest jobs, half moral witness and half C.E.O. The division seems more like 10 percent and 90 percent. The Secretary General is the chief administrator of an international parliamentary system and the boss of 10,000 international civil servants. Kofi Annan is a very unique and amazing man to be able to handle such a role at the same time as working on something as major as world peace along with many other projects. The problem with his role is that every one has an idea of what he should do. We all must have a platform from which we work and if we stick to our own principals we can rest at the end of the day knowing we did an uncompromising job, comfortably able to look at our-self in the mirror. This is the very essence of Kofi Annan. He does not compromise on his very make up, the personality traits that make him a great leader, the teachings of his father, the esteemed morals and values that he upholds. Even in the face of immense pressure from the worlds leaders particularly the United States. Annan stays firm to what he believes, he has many innate qualities and always upholds his dignity. “I have always tried to lead a simple life, which in fact gives you more freedom and room to maneauver in adjusting to any setting in which you find yourself” (Traub, 1998, p44). It is the very compromise of these morals and values that would undermine Kofi Annan and the role that he plays both in the UN and for world peace.

It was said of Gandhi that he had eyes that reflected the world’s sorrows. Annan’s seem to hold the world’s hopes Ramo, et al., 2000, p.34). 

Copyright: tripod


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