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United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's bravura performance on a world stage opposite Saddam Hussein did not surprise his Sloan School classmates. The traits he displayed in Iraq were old news to the MIT Sloan Fellows of 1971-72: empathy, sincerity, sensitivity, speaking softly with a deceptively commanding presence and a shy, knowing smile.
"He was very much at peace with himself," said retired Associate Dean Peter Gil of the Sloan School, who interviewed Mr. Annan when he was nominated for the Sloan Fellows master's degree program in 1971.
Zwi Kohorn (SM '72) remembered most the calming influence Mr. Annan provided when other members of their four-person work group argued about differing ideas with passion.
"He's a listener and an observer," recalled Mr. Kohorn, an Israeli who now lives in Boston. "He'd see how things developed and then involve himself as a mediator."
Mr. Kohorn recognized how well these traits served Mr. Annan in the negotiations with Iraq's dictator. Now, said Mr.ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½Kohorn -- noting that Mr. Annan was educated in the US and Europe and has spent much of his adult life in the genteel world of the UN -- it remains to be seen if Mr. Annan was skeptical enough to identify a ploy and be creative and tough enough to react appropriately.
"If he's just a matchmaker carrying American policy, he'll do very well," he said. "But if he had to come up with an innovative notion on theï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½spot, I just don't know."
Michael Peny of St. Charles, IL, also a 1971-72 Sloan Fellow, remembered Mr. Annan as a skilled and competitive table tennis player whose "calm exterior hides a rigid set of principles." During a grueling 22-day trip through Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland, the USSR and Japan, Mr. Annan's easy-going manner helped maintain civility despite close quarters and clashing personalities. "The people with 'in your face' personalities did not fare as well as the more laid-back people like Kofi," Mr. Peny said.
Carl "Pete" Peterson of Brookfield, CT, another Sloan Fellow, recalled long discussions with Mr. Annan about the tactics employed to reconcile conflicting agendas in the UN. Mr. Annan would define the overriding strategy: "You build a consensus around a common vision." Mr. Peterson also remembered Mr. Annan telling him, "It's better to do something than do nothing."
Mr. Annan was already the UN personnel officer for African nations when he was interviewed by Dean Gil, who was the director of executive programs at the Sloan School. Even then, the future secretary-general was grounded in the nuances of negotiating between differing cultures.
When Dean Gil asked what he did for the UN, Mr. Annan replied with an anecdote about arranging for a Russian professor to spend a year in Kenya. After he'd cut through the red tape and convinced the Russians to approve the arrangement, he learned the professor spoke only Russian and would need an interpreter. He then arranged for funds to pay for the interpreter and convinced the Russian bureaucrats to approve his trip as well.
When the year was up, Kenya wanted to extend the visit for a year. Again Mr. Annan went back to the Russians. They turned down the extension for the professor. On the other hand, they approved an extra year for the interpreter. "He told the story with good humor," Mr. Gil recalled.
Born in Ghana in 1938, Mr. Annan was educated at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana; Macalester College in St. Paul, MN; the Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva, and MIT. He was undersecretary-general for peace-keeping operations when he was appointed by the General Assembly to serve a five-year term as the UN's seventh secretary-general beginning Jan. 1, 1997. He has devoted his career to the United Nations.
Mr. Annan, an active alumnus, has visited MIT several times in recent years, most recently as the Commencement speaker last June. He used that occasion to reminisce about his peers and his experience at Sloan.
"Walking along the Charles River one day in the middle of my first term, I reflected on my predicament," he said in his speech. "How could I possibly survive, let alone thrive, in this group of over-achievers? And the answer came to me most emphatically: Not by playing according to their rules. 'Follow your own inner compass,' I said to myself. 'Listen to your own drummer.' To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there. My anxieties slowly dissolved.
"What I took away from MIT, as a result, was not only the analytical tools but also the intellectual confidence to help me locate my bearings in new situations, to view any challenge as a potential opportunity for renewal and growth, to be comfortable in seeking the help of colleagues, but not fearing, in the end, to do things my way."
Mr.ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½Peterson marveled at how little Mr. Annan has changed since their MIT days. "Aside from the graying hair, he's the same guy now that I went to school with," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 4, 1998.