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Dag Hammarskjöld and Ethical Leadership

Should a book on a highly gifted, spiritually and intellectually grounded political/diplomatic world leader of the twentieth century have serious impact on life today?

Published days before the COVID-19 lockdown and barely noticed,  Politics and Conscience, two seemingly increasingly separating concepts, is the title of a recently published book by Roger Lipsey.  The subtitle is Dag Hammarskjold on the Art of Ethical Leadership(Shambhala, 2020.)

In these troubled times, this “handbook” on the thoughts and actions of an extraordinary peacemaker and spiritual seeker offers remarkable insights in how the Nobel Peace Prize-winning UN Secretary-General’s rich interior life helped inform his success as the one John F. Kennedy called “the greatest statesman of the century.”

Lipsey is the author of a magisterial biography, Hammarskjold : a Life (U. of Michigan Press, 2013).  This shorter volume attempts to help us understand the why and how of the Swedish diplomat and thinker, whose integrity and resourcefulness were rooted in interior dialogue which included biblical sources, medieval Christian mystics as well as ancient Indian and Chinese texts.

Hammarskjold was an extraordinary man.  Fluent in four languages, he was sophisticated in religious and cultural matters, as well as in problem solving, winsome in personality, creative in poetry and searingly honest in his struggles and insights.

This book is a tour de force by a scholar who has also written books about Merton, Gurdjieff and Coomaraswamy.

Politics and Conscience is unusual as a book in that it, like the earlier and longer biography, ranges between describing how its subject interacted skillfully with world leaders while living a rich, reflective interior life.

What is most interesting is how the author relates modern understandings of mindfulness, problem-solving and dialogue to show how Hammarskjold thought and acted.  His ability to patiently persevere while planning imaginatively, facing facts, negotiating with awareness, empathy and strategy resulted in remarkable ways in which he showed that “fate is what we make it” even in the turbulent 1950’s and early ‘60s.  People in all sorts of contexts could learn much about how the Swedish diplomat sought to find some common ground, even in the midst of horrendous conflict.

Widely read and deeply cultured,  Hammarskjöld had remarkable skills with words.  Many of the most memorable  appear in this short tome.  (My favorite: “Our work for peace must begin with the private world of each of us.  To build for man a world without fear, we must be without fear.  To build a world of justice, we must be just. And how can we fight for liberty if we are not free in our own minds?”)

Wise words from speeches, articles and reflections in Markings show up with remarkable frequency on internet quotation sites.  An informal non-scientific survey of commercially available refrigerator plaques place him close to William Blake and Yogi Berra among most quoted.

A  liturgy for peace, justice and reconciliation has been compiled as Markings Mass.  

Lipsey also suggests modern leaders would do well to have Dag’s strong interior core, as well as an appreciation of a code of ethical behavior which derives from the wisdom of the ages.

Lipsey digs deeply into Markings, public speeches, media appearances, correspondence, interviews and news reports to develop a complex portrait of a fascinating man.

Underneath many of the passages of this work is an almost wistful desire that modern leaders be “Hammarskjoldian.”  In a recent Zoom dialogue with Lipsey, he said that the book was issued when it was (February)  “so it would find its way into American political discourse.”  However, in a time of Covid-19, it has not been widely noticed or reviewed.  It is well worth a look.
Watch Video of Dialogue with Robert O’Sullivan, Dr. Roger Lipsey and others.


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