Leadership Lessons from Baroness Ashton

In February, Baroness Catherine Ashton spoke to members of YLUK at a Winfield House dialogue. As High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security policy in the EU, and even before, she had a reputation for being someone that got things done. She brokered the landmark deal between Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dačić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister HashimThaçi; she was the first western diplomat to meet the detained former president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, and she secured a nuclear disarmament deal with Iran.

Ashton offered us five leadership lessons:

Lesson 1: Lead from behind

Ashton argued that unless you work alongside people – rather than seeking credit for yourself – others will not “own” the agreement and it will fail. A case in point is her own experience in brokering a deal between Kosovo and Serbia. She avoided any credit for herself – refusing to allow the agreement to be named after her as the other parties had wanted. She instead provided a safe space and told the press only what the other two parties agreed.

Lesson 2: Collaboration is the priority

When Ashton and P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) were negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran, they had to put the agreement above other problems – including Russia’s annexation of Crimea. She argued that in the interests of securing a deal they were often forced to ignore what was happening in Ukraine.

Lesson 3 Practice quiet diplomacy

It was exactly because of Ashton’s quiet diplomacy that she was able to visit Morsi before any other western diplomat. She claims diplomacy and leadership is not all about fighting and shouting – and, perhaps, something has gone wrong if it is.

Lesson 4: Know what you stand for

Ashton argued that knowing what she stood for led to her success. For example, she supported legislation seeking to tackle forced marriage – against the wishes of her own party. She said this was important because she never had to be brave to be consistent – there were just “things she couldn’t do”.

Lesson 5: Know who to trust

Baroness Ashton claims that decision making is difficult in a world of imperfect knowledge and, as such, we must know who has our best interests at heart.

By Abigail Watson