Condoleezza Rice's former adviser offers tips on giving advice -- 'a dangerous game'

Although it's important to develop good leadership skills, it is critical to learn how to analyze situations and give advice -- in his case to world leaders, said Eliot Cohen in a talk hosted by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies April 1.

Cohen, who served as counselor of the U.S. Department of State under Secretary Condoleezza Rice from 2007 to 2009, is now a professor of strategic studies and director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He spoke as part of the Einaudi Center's Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.

Referencing his time with Rice in the context of political science theory, classical mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novels, Cohen offered advice on giving advice and discussed the role of academics in the "the real world."

"All of us, sooner or later, find ourselves giving advice," Cohen said. "To our peers, to our superiors, to our subordinates and to a certain degree ourselves. And I think it's worth thinking about how to play that role well."

Conscious of his academically inclined audience, Cohen spoke candidly about the occasional awkward positioning of a political scientist in the arena of policymaking, such as he was. Although Rice has a history in academia, he said, that certainly doesn't privilege the role of the professor in the context of the State Department.

"Most references to academia in government are actually pejorative," he said.

What is worse, he said, is the treatment of professors themselves.

"When we first show up, we're either dweebs, because we are hopelessly naïve ... or jerks. Arrogant know-it-alls," Cohen said. "My advice is to embrace the inner dweeb. That's why I kept the bow tie."

Cohen said the best way for an academic to productively enter the world of policymaking is to focus on practicality, knowing that the arena may be unfamiliar.

"Until you're in the thick of it, it's very hard to understand what's going on," he said.

But, Cohen assured, one of academics' most useful skills is their innate curiosity about the world, which may allow them to efficiently and flexibly grasp complicated situations.

"Ask childlike questions," Cohen suggested. "Not childish, but childlike. The big questions ... the ones that almost never otherwise get asked."

Cohen also stressed the importance of the typical academic's failure to be deferential when working as part of an advisory team.

After all, he said, "It's very important for people at the top to have those who will discreetly tell them, when it's necessary, 'I think that's completely wrong.'"

Recognizing the temptation to view advice as influence without responsibility, Cohen referenced the elf Glorfindel of "The Lord of the Rings," saying (as Glorfindel did), "Elves seldom give advice ... for all courses may run ill.

"When giving advice," he elaborated, "there is the occasionally chilling thought that says, 'She might actually listen to me. This might actually have an influence.' Giving advice is a dangerous game."

Thus, Cohen said, it is important to be conscious of the corruptive nature of power in general. He warned against getting caught up in what he called the "cocoon" of governmental influence, which could result in self-destruction, loss of faith or madness, he said. Instead, good advisers should define themselves separately from their role in relation to power.

"If you use your time in college to develop an integrated personality and the confidence in that integration," Cohen said, "you have a good chance of coming out of advising still whole."

Kathleen Jercich '11 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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