What I learned from Eliot A. Cohen

by Sarah Luna

This afternoon I attended a guest lecture by Eliot A. Cohen hosted by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University. Dr. Cohen served as Counselor to the United States Department of State under Secretary Condoleezza Rice from 2007-2009. His talk was titled “On Giving Strategic Advice to Leaders”.

What most struck me about the lecture was the focus on advising as opposed to leading. From as long ago as high school, people have always emphasized leadership. You need to have leadership experience to get into college. College is a great time to engage in leadership roles and develop as a leader. The real world needs people with strong leadership skills. While this is very true, the implicit message was that if I wasn’t being a leader somewhere, I was squandering my time and talents. The thing is: I have never wanted to be a leader. I don’t like being the center of attention, and I don’t like making decisions for a group of people.

The summer before my year as a Lechner Hall Sophomore Advisor at Texas A&M, I went through a ropes training course with my teammates that was designed to elicit each of our leadership styles. I found out that I lead from behind. That made me feel better. Then in my senior year, I took Management 309 that delved in to all sorts of leadership types, but it made me aware of the fact that I am more effective in an advising role than I am in a leadership one.

Here’s how I see it.

Leaders reach out to multiple people and are amazing in that capacity. I’m better at one-on-one situations. I thought I was just weird, but now I’ve heard the perspective of “higher up” advisor. Here’s what I took.

The way academics think is very very different from the way politicians think.

Dr. Cohen described his journey from academia to politics and the vastly different cultures to be found. As an academic, he is alternately thought of as a naive outsider who doesn’t know “how things really work” or an arrogant jerk who claims to know everything. Between being thought of as a dweeb or a jerk, he “embraces the inner dweeb” – bright red bow tie included.

Academics often have a bias towards negativity which means that we are quick to criticize and point out flaws. I have noticed this in my own life. I am quick to notice inconsistencies–indeed I am trained to notice.  Because I can see these faults, I am very hesitant to actually implement any new plan.

As I am slowly learning, I will never have all the information I think I need to make a “good” decision. But these decisions have to be made.

Good counsel is risky to seek and to give.

He referenced “Of Counsel” by Francis Bacon to emphasize both the importance of good counsel and the perils of seeking said counsel. Leaders have to discern whom they can trust with information. Who can they have in what CS Lewis calls “The Inner Ring“? The desire to be included in the inner ring is universal, but it is an intimidating position. Somebody might take your advice; what would happen then?

“And it is also said,” answered Frodo: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”

“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you?”

-Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

“People, in general,” [Athos] said, “only ask advice not to follow it; or if they do follow it, it is for the sake of having someone to blame for having given it.”

– The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

“Go in Whole, leave Whole.”

Here he referenced a story of four rabbis in the Talmud: “Four men entered the orchard — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah destroyed the plants; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace.” Scholars have interpreted “the orchard” in different ways. Dr. Cohen used it as a metaphor for politics. He shared that the words “peace” and “whole” have the same Hebrew root. Only the rabbi who went in whole survived the perils of the orchard and came out whole. He encouraged us to use our time as students to develop our whole–our beliefs and creed–because it will sustain us throughout life.

Overall, I thought his talk was fascinating. He gave me new ideas to mull over about the interactions between advisors and leaders as well as hope that as an academic I could potentially have an impact that extends beyond my field.