Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian diplomat and former United Nations (UN) secretary-general, passed away at age 80 at a hospital in Bern, Switzerland after a short illness. I had the privilege and honour of meeting him in person at the The 30th AdAsia Congress in Bali in November last year.
He was my personal hero, and this meeting played up a memory from three years ago that lingered in my mind.
In 2015, I was in Ghana for a Unilever workshop. Having known the story of Annan’s early years, I made it a point to visit the Mfantsipim School, a Methodist boarding school in Cape Coast where Annan – who served as the seventh secretary-general of the UN from 1997 to 2006 – had studied.
I was keen on seeing the school that made a boy become a secretary-general of the UN and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
It was a Saturday morning and I saw boys doing their own laundry, cleaning their dormitories and the surroundings.
The mental note that I made to myself was that leadership is about recognising the dignity of labour early in life and taking responsibility to clean your own mess and that of others!
Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that just two years later, I would get an opportunity to share my experience with Annan in person.
I presented him a collage of his childhood memories and I was told that he and his wife Nane were touched by the gesture.
He later placed his hand on my shoulder and told me that we had another thing in common apart from shared memory of his school – it was that his dad had worked for Unilever Ghana.
I will always feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder.
Responding to a question on leadership, he remarked that, “Leadership is about understanding a problem and asking yourself what you can do to help. Leadership is service. A good leader is a good follower.”
That resonated well with me.
I asked him, “Most people trust businesses and business leaders more than governments and politicians. Why aren’t business leaders given the due recognition they deserve globally? Can a business leader win a Nobel Prize?”
He answered, “People have lost trust in leaders – both corporate and political. In the US financial crisis of 2008, some banks were ‘too big to fail’ yet people were too small to matter. This is why you see the kind of election results in the US, UK and elsewhere.”
I experienced greatness in the presence of Kofi Annan and interacting with him was one of the best moments of my life. He was a true global statesman who served with amazing grace and deep compassion.
In an interview with BBC’s HardTalk to mark his 80th birthday, he said, “I am a stubborn optimist, I was born an optimist and will remain an optimist.”
Those in Bali, Indonesia who heard him speak on Campaign for a Better World last year would have felt his optimism and listened to his strong words, spoken softly.
There, he noted three of the most important things that businesses need to do to bring positive change to the world:
1. Not forget the poorest
2. Build alliances and partnerships to increase equitable growth and opportunity for all
3. Ensure the decisions they make will deliver sustainable and ethical development
“…I recognise that this is an ambitious agenda,” He said. “There are many challenges to over-come, but I am confident that through leadership, partnership, and vision, positive change is possible. With the full engagement of business, globalisation can be harnessed into a process which ensures prosperity for all, while protecting our planet. So let us all live up to this responsibility.”
Never in my life have I met such a person – a man of quiet fortitude; soft spoken but with strength that inspired.
The world has lost a great statesman. I am grief stricken.