Great Books: Chasing the Flame

What flame are you chasing, and through the years what have you learned about yourself and what you need to do to make a difference?  Maybe this is too simple a question to pose, but more and more I find people wrestling to figure out the right answer. This question is at the heart of the new book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio de Vieira De Mello and the Fight to Save the World, by Samantha Power, which I highly recommend to you. You may be wondering why I am suggesting a book on the United Nations and one of its star officials; what can this story teach us? Bottom line: Sergio Vieira De Mello came face-to-face with many issues that those of us involved in change must ultimately address.

Vieira De Mello led critical UN missions at major flashpoints in recent history, including in Iraq, Bosnia, Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and East Timor -- each with its own thorny set of issues involving peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and human rights. He was tragically killed in Baghdad in 2003, at age 55.

A Brazilian who earned a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne, he was an idealist of sorts, like many of us. Over the years, his views on human nature and idealism came into clearer focus. Power reflects on Vieira De Mello's journey throughout the book. Here are four points I want to highlight, hopefully as a way for you to think about your own journey.

 1.       Over time, Vieira De Mello became an outspoken advocate for human rights (relative to humanitarian aid). He began to think much more about the "human being," the individual as opposed to people en mass. This change resulted in him being concerned with the daily lives of people, rather than being focused simply on policy issues and programs.

How often do you view your own efforts in terms of the unwashed "community" or "public" or "clients?" Do you see individuals, people who lead their own lives and are trying to improve their condition?

2.     Vieira De Mello came to believe that the dignity of individuals, communities, even whole nations sat at the crux of any effort to engage and work with people. Outsiders, he believed, must realize they can bring money, expertise and ideas to a place, but that their most important role was to support local leaders and processes to build local capacity. Local people owned their communities.

How do you actively respect the dignity of people? In what ways do you place building people's own capacities and tapping their own aspirations at the center of what you do (and how often do your words and deeds match up)?

3.     Power writes that Vieira De Mello believed people must "probe deeply into the societies they were working in." But, he argued that leaders too often relied on their professional staff, outside reports, and similar means to tell them about a country. Instead, one must actively learn about people's culture, norms, language, traditions to understand them and know what matters.

How do you understand the communities where you work -- people's webs of concerns, their aspirations, the norms and language people use, etc? To what extent do you truly "know" those communities (or only think you do)?

4.     In the book's intro, Power says of Vieira De Mello: "He had long ago stopped believing that he brought the solutions to a place's woes, but he had grown masterful at asking the questions that helped reveal constructive ideas."

What specific questions do you ask to help reveal people's constructive ideas about their situations, and how often does your own impulse to provide answers crowd out people's knowledge and voice?

Chasing the Flame offers insights into the life and thoughts of someone who faced up to difficult challenges, and seldom had the luxury to stand on the sidelines. He came to these fights with certain principles, and he had to examine their actual meaning as they were repeatedly tested in daily life, and then determine what was most valuable to him.

In many respects, this is the path for change each of us is on.