Mary Robinson on Influence Without Authority

Harvard Business Review

An interview with Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland. For more, read the Life's Work section in the March issue of HBR.


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ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Alison Beard. I'm here today with Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and a former UN human rights commissioner. She now leads the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice.

President Robinson, I'd like to start by asking about the Irish presidency. It's a position that holds very little formal authority, yet you managed to wield a great deal of influence while you were in office. So how did you do that?

MARY ROBINSON: Part of it was to be close to those who were providing good examples of whatever the activity might have been. Local self-development in areas where I would just go and visit and then use that as an example and talk about it. Reach out in friendship to the two communities in Northern Ireland and use visits there-- or visits by representatives of those communities to the official residence-- to explain the importance of reconciliation.

I wondered when I was elected president, how I'd fulfill the promise I made that I would try to represent an Ireland that cared about human rights. And when the opportunity came to go first of all to Somalia and later to Rwanda, there was an opportunity on behalf of a small country-- Ireland-- to speak out on the need to address serious conflicts. The need to stop a genocidal killing. The need then afterwards to care enough to support countries coming out of these traumas.

And now I think I've learned in a different way how to try to influence, because I've had experience since I ended my term as High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2002 of leading two small organizations. First of all, Realizing Rights out of New York. And now the foundation on climate justice, The Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice in Dublin.

In both cases, the organization itself is very small but with global ambition. And to achieve that you just have to partner well. You have to know where the niche issue is that will point to a whole area that needs to be addressed by those who have the power. And you need the entry points. You need to be innovative. I think you need to think out of the box quite a lot. And I enjoy doing that.

ALISON BEARD: You mentioned your trips to Africa, and there's one famous incident when you came back, and you were talking about so many of the atrocities that you'd seen, and you got choked up. What do you think is the appropriate level of emotion that leaders should show?

MARY ROBINSON: I really don't like the amount of choking up that you see sometimes nowadays. Maybe it's just because of my personality.

So when I had been in Somalia for several days and seen children dying in the arms of their parents because the fighting warlords were stopping the food getting to feeding stations-- and I addressed both warlords. But when I spoke at a press conference in Nairobi, I felt a wave of all those images of suffering, of pain, of women, of the voiceless, of the impoverished. And it really affected me, and my voice started to break. I was furious, because after all I was a trained barrister and should be able to advocate calmly and with assurance.

But I realized afterwards that in fact it was all the more powerful, because it had clearly so affected me as an individual-- as a woman-- that it was more compelling in conveying the message. But I really feel slightly embarrassed when you see so much tearing up now on television. It's not my style.

ALISON BEARD: Right. You've described yourself as a provoker. From your advocacy of women's and homosexual rights when you were a lawyer to your firm stance against some US policies at the UN. So where do you get that courage to challenge people who are more powerful than you?

MARY ROBINSON: I think it's more a passion for human rights that calls me at times to provoke, like the speech I made as auditor of the Law Society in 1967, where I advocated all the changes in the Irish Constitution and laws. To legalize divorce. To introduce family planning. To decriminalize homosexuality and suicide. And in those days that was unusual. But it was because I passionately believed that these were areas that needed to be reformed if we wanted to have an open, pluralist country and help the peace process in Northern Ireland.

And at every stage, it's been more a passion for justice and for advancing human rights that has prompted me to speak to truth to power, to stand up to bullies, to be prepared to criticize even the United States after 9/11. Although people told me that won't help your career as High Commissioner. It seemed much more important to do the job than try to keep the job.

ALISON BEARD: You've played so many different roles over the course of your career. Are there any particular skills that you had to learn moving into each new one?

MARY ROBINSON: I think it's important to have the stamina to work on something until it comes right. For example, the real struggle to build up the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights. From management issues-- there was a very poor management structure. It was not possible to pick people of a nationality that was already represented. So I couldn't pick as my deputy a Swedish, very good human rights person, who would have been ideal, because we were both Europeans.

And I found it very difficult to get new posts where I badly needed them. Or to upgrade very good human rights officers and get them decent contracts. At the same time, I had people who were doing almost nothing and didn't care about human rights, but they had secure contracts and I couldn't find them. So the UN does suffer from a heavy bureaucracy in that sense.

And I was part of the broader secretaries of the UN. So even though my office was based in Geneva, the final decision on staffing had to go through a whole bureaucracy in New York. And so the decisions could take more than a year to fill a post. And yet that post could be absolutely vital to our work, and I'd be tearing my hair out. So you need a lot of patience and stamina and willingness to work to strengthen an institution.

I do believe very firmly that individuals can bring great skills and can give a leadership, but the real sustainable leadership is to strengthen an institution and give it vision and purpose. And I was of the few that I was able to do that in a certain way with the presidency. Not by changing anything, but by reinterpreting what was purely traditional limits being put on what the president could do in Ireland. And being a constitutional lawyer, I could see that they were not grounded in the Constitution itself or the oath of the president, but just a traditional way of keeping the head of state so exalted that the person actually didn't do very much.

ALISON BEARD: You didn't only change the presidency, you were the first woman in it. So do you think that women and men lead and manage differently?

MARY ROBINSON: On the whole I do. Obviously it's not black and white. But I've felt that women are more problem solving and tend to lead in a more participatory way. Everybody gets a chance to say their piece. So it's less hierarchical and often more listening and more nurturing. Now I know that some good men leading have those qualities, and good business leaders are developing those qualities, but when I was elected as the first woman president, I was making it very clear from the beginning that for me it was a positive aspect of the fact that I was elected that I was going to be doing it as a woman

ALISON BEARD: So how would you rate the progress of women leaders around the world since you left office?

MARY ROBINSON: I chaired the Council of women. World Leaders for six years when I moved to New York in 2002. And people were always surprised when I would ask the question, how many do you think are in the Council of Women World Leaders. It's a club of former and current women elected presidents or prime ministers. And they would always underestimate how many. There are now over 40 living women who are either currently president or prime minister of their country or have been and are now-- like myself-- retired.

And yet, it hasn't made the difference that it might have made. So I'm very interested in a more innovative leadership that I believe that women should be giving. And I think that's true in business as well. And in my time in realizing rights, we tried to link women who had access to power and influence with women at grassroots who are coping with conflict, coping with abuses of human rights.

Now I'm doing the same thing with climate with my foundation. We've created a Troika+ of women leaders. The troika word coming from the fact that the three last climate conferences were presided over by women. Connie Hedegaard, the conference in Copenhagen. Patricia Espinosa, the Foreign Minister of Mexico for the conference in Cancun. And Maite Mashabane for the conference recently in Durban. And those three women agreed to form a troika around which we have built a troika+ of more than 60 ministers and heads of agencies, et cetera. And there are about nine or 10 supportive men among that group. But we're saying the challenge to this troika+ of women leaders is to listen to women who are coping with the impacts of climate at grassroots level. And to take on board that it's undermining their food security. That they have to go further for water. That they don't have access to renewable energy. And what are these women going to do about that in their spheres of influence.

ALISON BEARD: I know you've had a long and successful marriage. You also have children and grandchildren. How do you balance those family commitments with your work?

MARY ROBINSON: Well, like everybody else I struggle with this work-life balance. There's no magic formula. But for me it's been important to be able to compartmentalize a little bit what I do. So at an early stage I was teaching law, practicing law, taking part in the Senate in contributing to legislation. And at the same time rearing three children-- with home help, I must say.

To me it was very important to emphasize to the three children when they were young that they were the most important. I remember indeed the night of the election, sitting with them over a meal concocted at the last minute and saying, even though I am now president of Ireland, you are the most important thing in my life. And I think that that was important for me to say from my perspective and it was important for them to hear. I might be traveling a lot. I might be away, but that they would know that they were the most important.

ALISON BEARD: That was former Irish president Mary Robinson. She's the subject of our Life's Work interview in the March issue of Harvard Business Review. For more go to hbr.org.

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