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Why Unlikeminded Leadership Is Crucial In Our Fractured World
Friday 28 October, 2022

Why Unlikeminded Leadership Is Crucial In Our Fractured World

by Dr Elizabeth Kiss

Our world is fraying and fracturing in frightening and dangerous ways. 

We’re seeing dramatic declines in trust in core institutions, from government to universities to the media.  Political institutions are in crisis, from Boris Johnson’s resignation to Donald Trump’s insurrection against the U.S. Capitol to the breakdown of the Sri Lankan government. 

Russia is waging an aggressive and indiscriminate war against the Ukraine and the spectre of nuclear war has been publicly raised by Vladimir Putin.  China-U.S. relations are at a low point, as are Hindu-Muslim relations in India.  All of this is occurring against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation, and the ever-more clear and present danger of climate change.

These crises are fundamentally crises of human leadership, character and imagination.  There aren’t technical fixes for any of them, though science and technology have a key role to play.  Rather, they will require public-spirited leadership in all its forms – from government to business, the arts to science, the media to the NGO community. 

In short, we need leaders who are un-like-minded yet like-hearted. 

Today’s fractured world needs leaders who see the big picture and take the long view, who can disagree yet coexist with others, who understand not only with their heads, but also with their hearts, that no human culture or system of government is without its flaws and who know from personal experience that we all have lessons to learn from people very different from ourselves.

We need leaders who understand they don’t know it all and can draw on and appreciate others’ diverse talents and contributions, who have a commitment to inclusion in everything they do because they understand that we gain new understanding and get better results when we include diverse perspectives.

One of the hallmarks of the Rhodes Scholarship and the Rhodes community is that we are un-like-minded.  This un-like-mindedness has several dimensions.

Our Scholars can apply to pretty much any full-time degree offered by the University of Oxford and we are a significant funder across all four of Oxford’s academic divisions:  medical sciences; mathematical, physical and life sciences; the humanities; and the social sciences.  We have Scholars who are passionate about poetry, philosophy, international relations, public health, bioinformatics, cybersecurity, physics, neuroscience, soft tissue engineering… the list goes on. 

The scholarship has also never dictated what careers or fields Scholars should pursue, except to challenge them to esteem public service, broadly defined, as their highest aim.  So our alumni can be found in many levels of government, politics and law – including heads of state, mayors, government ministers, and constitutional court justices – but also as business leaders, tech entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, scientists, heads of NGO’s and universities, and more. 

Finally, you layer these diverse disciplinary perspectives and careers with the extraordinary diversity of backgrounds our Scholars represent.  They come from big cities and small villages, from deep poverty and privilege, from Israel and Palestine, China and the United States, Saudi Arabia and the American South. 

The Rhodes Scholarship was dreamed up in response to a very different world.  Our founder, Cecil John Rhodes, an English immigrant to southern Africa who became an immensely influential as well as controversial mining magnate and politician, envisioned a scholarship that would bring young men from the far reaches of the British Empire, as well as from the rising powers of the United States and Germany, to Oxford where their studies and the friendships they forged would prepare them to “fight the world’s fight” and create a better and more peaceful world. 

For Rhodes, the British Empire lay at the very heart of that vision of a better world.  But within a few short years of his death, the Empire had fallen.  Since then, we have moved beyond Rhodes’ vision in many important ways, opening the scholarship to women and recruiting wider applicant pools to enable young people from previously excluded racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups to apply and win.

But the core insight behind Rhodes’ legacy – that the world needs ethical, public-spirited leaders who have a global frame of reference and whose networks of friendship and understanding span national boundaries – is in fact more relevant than ever.  With strategic focus and resolve, the Rhodes Trust is transcending the scholarship’s original geographic footprint and becoming more truly global and un-like-minded. 

This un-like-mindedness makes the conversations within our community incredibly interesting, vibrant, challenging -- and occasionally a bit messy.  But what makes them so productive is that we combine un-like-mindedness with like-heartedness… with a shared passion to contribute, to make a difference, to use our talents to make the world a better place. 

One of the things I love about our Scholar community is the spirit of curiosity which brings engineers to our humanities gatherings, Israeli Scholars to our Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine conference, and poets to our sessions debating the pros and cons of Universal Basic Income. 

On my recent trip to Singapore I caught up with Raymond Lim (Singapore & Balliol 1984) and reminisced about our conversations when we were students in Oxford.  Raymond has gone on to a distinguished career in business and public service and a few years ago generously stepped up to endow and reinstate the Rhodes Scholarship for Singapore. 

Back in the 1980s, I learned so much from Raymond about Singapore’s extraordinary history -- lessons more vivid and nuanced than I could have gleaned from books.  My perspectives on politics and culture were challenged and enriched. 

Today, Scholars have even more opportunities for such informal, impactful conversations because we bring them together for Character, Service and Leadership retreats and other events at Rhodes House.  I am confident that the decades to come, today’s Scholars will look back and realise how transformative those conversations were in their lives. 

Still, the real value of a community of the un-like-minded but like-hearted is not what happens to the individuals within it, but what it prepares them to do and be for others.  The formative experience of learning how to navigate membership in a global community of the un-like-minded helps prepare people to be the kinds of leaders the world needs today. 

I see this in the Rhodes community every day, as Scholars serve their communities, launch innovative enterprises, transform organisations, and use their talents and energies to promote a healthier, fairer, more inclusive, and more sustainable world. 

This is why even in the face of today’s profound challenges, I take hope from the work we are doing together, with the help of so many around the world, to keep programmes like the Rhodes Scholarship vibrant and strong.  They are needed now more than ever.

This blog is based on remarks by Dr Kiss at the 2022 annual Rhodes Dinner in Singapore 

About The Rhodes Scholar Blog

The Rhodes Scholar Blog features the excellent research from our Rhodes Scholars and their insights into important topical issues. If you would like to contribute, please contact sophie.crowe@rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk