The United Nations, and Finding Your Personal Legend

Yesterday, a group of Edward S Mason Fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School had the privilege of listening to Gillian Sorenson, a former UN Asst Sec Gen, and widow of the late Ted Sorenson, who was Special Counsel to President John F Kennedy, and a personal hero on mine.

Some takeaways from that illuminating talk:

  1. Life can take you in strange directions. It is helpful to have a general plan of where you think life will lead you, but you have to always be attuned to what the Universe is telling you, and be prepared to have your Personal Legend (fans of The Alchemist will be able to appreciate this). Gillian Sorenson followed her interest in politics, and parlayed that into what seems to be a very satisfying and enriching career in the United Nations.
  2. You never know until you try. Gillian Sorenson cut her teeth in politics campaigning for Ed Koch, who she described as 8th place in a field of 8 candidates running for Mayor of New York City. Who knew that a relatively anonymous House member could have won office as mayor of the largest city in the world? I suppose Ed Koch didn’t either, when he chose to run for Mayor.
  3. Public speaking can change your life, or hold you back. Some of the smartest and most compassionate people in the world, can fail as leaders of their organisations if they are unable to step up and represent their organisations as effective and compelling public representatives. Public speaking ability is at the heart of how we represent our organisations and our communities. It still amazes me how so little of public education in Malaysia (for that is the public system I am most knowledgeable of) puts emphasis on the ability to speak in public.


Remembering Menino

It was only the second week of our “Leadership in a Livable Cities” class, I think, and we were face-to-face with former Mayor Thomas M Menino. From the readings, I pegged him as another typical “Mahathirist” politician – strong, bold, transformative.

He was all that, and more.

He wasn’t a “fancy talker”, as he plainly put it, and sometimes I strained to hear him clearly. But what clearly jumped at me was his passion for his city. His love for the art of politics, his delight in the privilege of representing the people.

So it was a shock to me, when word went around that Mayor Menino passed away, last Thursday. Several of my lecturers would start their classes with a remembrance of his legacy. The day after he passed away, the pages of the Boston Globe were plastered with eulogies of Boston’s longest-serving mayor; loving anecdotes mixed with soaring praises of the many transformations which he brought to Boston during his long tenure as Mayor.

And when I took the bus home, the day after news about Menino’s passing spread across Boston, the bus driver was telling me about how Menino had approved funding for his neighborhood’s block party, and proceeded to show up for the party himself!

It is always inspiring to see leaders who truly embody the spirit of the people, and not just blithely claim to be “pemimpin berjiwa rakyat” just for “sedap hati”‘s sake. Hopefully Menino’s leadership will inspire many others to follow in his footsteps…

Thomas Menino