Ambassador Joseph’s Story Continues – by Chris Schwinden

The first thing I noticed as I sat down across the desk from James Joseph was the American flag behind me, a constant reminder that I was in the office of the former United States Ambassador to South Africa.

And then there were the pictures on the wall.  It was not so much the number of pictures, but who was in them.  There was one of the Ambassador standing next to President Clinton in the Oval Office, and another of Secretary of State Clinton, with a personal note from the Secretary below.  There was a black-and-white shot of the Ambassador when he was Under Secretary of the Interior, sitting just two seats from President Carter at a meeting in the White House.  And, of course, there was one of him shaking hands with President Nelson Mandela, wide smiles on both their faces.

After the initial introductions and small talk, he began to tell me about those pictures.  While they all certainly spoke to his vast experience and his unparalleled network of personal connections, being in his presence and listening to his stories, I quickly began to realize that Ambassador Joseph was far more than an immense biography, or a speaker at a distant podium.

While we did spend quite a bit of time talking about the pictures with those many dignitaries, we also looked at some more private ones.  We looked at pictures of him and his wife on a recent trip to Cuba.  The Ambassador told me that he had traveled there as part of a delegation of American researches to better understand why, despite limited resources, life expectancy in Cuba continues to rise.

This trip helped him further explore his recent interest in examining the issues of aging and leadership.  While much of the focus in this area has been on intergenerational transfer of leadership, he told me, “We also ought to look at how we can draw upon the strengths of each generation.”  He added that we need to better recognize the “special insight, wisdom, and experience that elder leaders bring to leadership roles.”

Then he showed me pictures of recent graduates of his leadership development program at the University of Cape Town. As we looked at the pictures of those future leaders he had helped groom, I saw him in a different light.  Like a proud father, he listed the current leadership positions of the alumni of his program: foundation presidents, college presidents, a mayor of a major U.S. city, members of the South African parliament, and the current Archbishop of Cape Town.

Ambassador Joseph is certainly proud of where he has been and what he has accomplished.  But when he started talking about his students, that pride was magnified.  Even with his own accomplishments, I began to see that Ambassador Joseph is far more proud of what he has helped others achieve than what he has achieved on his own.

We then talked about the parts of his story that were not captured in the pictures on the wall: growing up in Louisiana, serving in the Army, organizing civil rights and anti-war efforts in Alabama and California, and working in business, academia and philanthropy across the country and around the world.

And even when I looked at the clock and realized that I had been in his office for well over an hour, we just kept talking.  We talked about leadership lessons and ethical dilemmas.  We talked about parents and children and grandchildren.  While I had felt a bit nervous when I walked into his office just a short time earlier, the Ambassador’s willingness to share his wisdom with me made me feel like I was catching up with a long-lost mentor.

When our conversation came to an end, and I returned to my desk to review my notes, I understood how his students must have felt when they had the opportunity to learn from him and to receive the benefits of his years of experience.

In his role as Leader-in-Residence in the Hart Leadership Program, the Ambassador serves as a resource for our program, by working on special projects with faculty, guest lecturing in classes, and mentoring students.  In fact, as I left his office, the Ambassador asked if I would help him setup Skype on his computer so he could talk with a Hart Fellow who recently began working in Cape Town.