Juan Manuel Santos, Former President of Colombia, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Lisa Abitbol / Harvard Chan School)

Navigating the Course Set Before You: Lessons in Leadership from Juan Manuel Santos

By Ronke Olowojesiku

From its grand mountains to its soft plains, dry deserts, and tropical coasts, Colombia is an exercise in fantastical contrast. Given such a landscape, it is no wonder that some of the greatest pieces of literature, particularly of the realismo mágico genre, have come forth from this country, imprinting their words on the hearts of the world. One of Colombia’s most esteemed and beloved writers, Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, penned these words of the residents of the fictional town of Macondo in his timeless novel One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alteration between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.”

In his 2016 Nobel lecture, the then President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, recited the words of Gárcia Márquez, reflecting on his country that was torn between the extremes of war and peace. Since the 1960s, guerrilla violence, largely perpetuated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), dominated Colombian life. In the decades that followed, news headlines were peppered with stories of landmine explosions, mysterious kidnappings, and other forms of horrific violence and extortion. Peace seemed imminent when, in September 2016, an agreement was reached between Santos’ government and the FARC leaders. In the subsequent week, hope appeared lost when the country returned a “no” vote by a narrow margin, leaving many to wonder if peace in Colombia would remain a mere fantasy.

On Thursday, April 18, 2019, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and current Angelopoulos Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos joined the Voices in Leadership series to share lessons learned while leading his country toward peace. In dialoguing with Dr. Marcia Castro, Andelot Professor of Demography and Chair of the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Santos discussed his experiences as a naval officer, journalist, three-time cabinet minister, and president, reflecting on how each role informed his leadership approach in negotiating peace.

Identifying a destination

Like many around him, Santos grew up dreaming of peace in his country. However, it seemed like magic — intangible and unlikely to exist. Previous Colombian governments had attempted peace, like the notable efforts by former President Andrés Pastrana Arango whose 1999–2002 peace talks ended tragically with the FARC hijacking an airplane and kidnapping a senator. Given this tense environment, how, then, could one achieve what had not yet been done? How could one navigate or find direction? For many, it is daunting to have to confront such a task with no clear blueprint. On this point, Santos offered the audience advice he received while in the navy:

“I always tried to identify a port of destination… The officer who was in charge of the recruits gave me a sailboat and said, go and learn how to sail. He said, in order to sail you need to know where you want to go.”

For Santos, he knew his path, though a murky one, was toward the negotiation table. When asked how one journeys down such an unclear road, Santos recited the words of Spanish songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat: “‘se hace camino al andar’ — you sort of design your own path while you go forward.”

Juan Manuel Santos, Former President of Colombia (Right), was interviewed by Dr. Marcia Castro, Andelot Professor of Demography and Chair of the Department of Global Health (Left), at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (Photo by Lisa Abitbol / Harvard Chan School)

Planning your course

In creating his own way, Santos looked to the wisdom of those who came before him:

“I started working to create the conditions — studying the different peace processes around the world, the peace process that we had tried…and failed. Why is it that they failed? What lessons could I extract from the process in Northern Ireland, the process in South Africa, or in Salvador…And what are the conditions necessary for a successful peace process to end a war that has lasted more than 50 years?”

As Colombia’s first foreign trade minister, Santos changed the business culture by opening the economy to the global market. As Minister of Finance, he oversaw one of the worst economic recessions in the country’s history and made tough choices to rectify it. Later, as Minister of National Defense, he led efforts against the FARC, while changing government tactics towards the guerillas in order to pave a way toward negotiation. In each role, he learned how to use his present position to influence his ultimate goal and the importance of staying true to his beliefs even when meeting with resistance.

During his defense tenure, Santos found himself in the perplexing position of being a “dove” for peace while serving as a “hawk” for violence. Many praised him for reducing the number of guerrilla forces. However, Santos took great pride in the strategic way his efforts against the FARC laid the foundation for compromise. His first step was to humanize the war: “I told the soldiers, I’m going to start measuring by the amount of people from the FARC that give up their arms and go back to their families. These soldiers were proud then of, not showing bodies, but showing ‘I have these people who are going back to their families.’” Santos credited such actions in helping negotiations with the FARC in the following years.

As Minister of Finance, he spent much time explaining his plans to correct the economic recession, standing firm as his critics grew stronger. “There I learned the lesson of it’s always better to do what is correct, even if it’s unpopular,” he told the audience. “When you have a port of destination you use the winds in your favor even if they are against you.”

Navigating rough seas

The winds appeared to be in Santos’ favor in 2010, when he became President of Colombia in a landslide victory, buoyed by those who favored his efforts against the guerillas. However, things changed when he again started to push for peace. “I was warned,” he reflected, “and I knew that people were going to try to say, or my opposers would say, you’re a traitor.” Support for Santos shifted, and he noted how he was elected by the right in one election and re-elected by the left in another. Despite the swing in political support, Santos stayed the course toward peace, which appeared to be certain in 2016 when an agreement was brokered between the FARC and the Colombian government. However, Santos was shocked when the Colombian people rejected the agreement. “A flame of hope had been lit in Cartagena when we signed the agreement in the presence of world leaders, and now that flame appeared to be suddenly snuffed out,” he shared during his Nobel lecture. But Santos would not yield. He knew peace was close and remained steadfast in pursuing it:

“As Head of State, I sought to understand the significance of this unexpected setback and called at once for a broad national dialogue to seek unity and reconciliation. I was determined to turn this setback into a chance to develop the widest possible consensus for reaching a new agreement.”

His efforts did not go unnoticed. It was days after the “no” vote that the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced his award for the Nobel Peace Prize, citing his unwavering commitment and Colombians’ bold hope for a lasting solution to the conflict. A peace agreement was eventually ratified in November 2016, ending a 52-year conflict that cost over US$152 billion and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Student Moderator Seemi Qaiser (Left) leading an off-the-record Q&A session with Juan Manuel Santos (Right) after his talk. (Photo by Lisa Abitbol / Harvard Chan School)

Charting a new course

Since leaving office in 2018, Santos has worked hard to continue the peace he had created. With the funds from his Nobel Prize, Santos founded the Compaz Foundation, which aims to assist with reparations for the victims of the Colombian armed conflict. Additionally, the foundation will focus on addressing poverty and protecting Colombia’s rich biodiversity, now threatened by climate change.

Colombia has inspired the imagination of novelists and the realities of the world. In entering peacetime, Colombia’s story joined those of other historic resolutions. As the peace process’ visionary, Santos credited setting a clear goal and learning from various experiences as his driving factors. Success came from working toward his goal at every point of his career and sticking to what he knew to be right when times were difficult. In doing so, he subverted what people thought to be possible, branching out from where the limits of reality stood. In his visit to the Leadership studio, Santos encouraged the audience to look beyond the limits of our present reality to a future not yet reached, to set our course toward what seems impossible.

Story written by Ronke Olowojesiku, a Master of Public Health student in Quantitative Methods at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Born in Nigeria and raised in metro Atlanta, Ronke attended the University of Georgia, where she earned degrees in Genetics and Spanish and was a leader in the International Student Life office. Currently, Ronke is pursuing a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree at the Medical College of Georgia and has a broad interest in child health and global health.

Story edited by Sherine Andreine Powerful, a first-year Doctor of Public Health student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A Diasporic Jamaican, she received her Bachelor’s degree in Latin American and International Studies from Yale University and holds a Master of Public Health degree in Population and Family Health, with a concentration in Global Health, from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She is interested in gender and sexual justice in the English-speaking Caribbean, as well as resilience and anticolonial sustainable development in the context of climate change.




Voices in Leadership webcast series enhances leadership, connecting high-profile leaders with the Harvard School of Public Health community. hsph.me/voices

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Voices in Leadership

Voices in Leadership

Voices in Leadership webcast series enhances leadership, connecting high-profile leaders with the Harvard School of Public Health community. hsph.me/voices

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