Aaron Williams is Senior Advisor Emeritus in International Development & Government Relations at RTI and the former director of the Peace Corps. He is also the author of A Life Unimagined, a memoir of his extraordinary career, which began with Peace Corps service in the Dominican Republic and culminated in the highest levels of leadership of the agency.

Aaron returned to RTI headquarters October 6 to share how his unique life experiences have shaped his thoughts on leadership, international development, and America’s place in the world. Before the event, we sat down with Aaron to discuss his book and the lessons it offers to those who, like RTI, work to improve the human condition.  

You recently wrote a powerful book, “A Life Unimagined,” capturing your life’s journey.  What led you to write this book?

In writing this book/memoir I had two goals: first, I wanted to inspire young students to consider a career in global affairs, especially minorities, people of color, who are still unrepresented overall in our foreign affairs agencies and in international development organizations; and, second, it was my desire to leave a legacy for my five grandsons ... a book about our family and my career, seen through my eyes and in my words.

In the preface of your book, you said that “we need to be sure that the face of America around the world reflects the diversity and strength of our country”. How do you think American organizations can work to help that happen?

I find a Melinda Gates quote to be on target: “I define diversity as when you have a mix of people seated at the table who look representative of our whole society.”

Last year, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a panel discussion on diversity in the foreign affairs agencies. I noted in my remarks and comments that based on my experience, and as widely articulated by diversity experts, the most important components for promoting diversity are focused on at least three areas:  first, you need to gain an understanding of diverse groups in our country and how to reach them in order to create and maintain a diverse pipeline of talent; after you’ve hired diverse candidates, the next step is to create mentoring and sponsorships programs in your organization; and then, of course, provide opportunities for growth and performance aimed at retaining talented individuals.

I believe that senior leadership—in government, corporations, and civil society—must demonstrate that, through determination and focus, the pursuit of diversity is integral to their operational agenda. This includes creating a corporate culture that rewards those individuals who have the courage to make decisions that will lead to greater diversity within organizations.

You share how your work with the Peace Corps exposed you to travel and living abroad. How did your experiences in the organization help shape your world view?

A:  My Peace Corps service in the Dominican Republic transformed my life in unimaginable ways. I had just turned 20. I was thrust into a different culture, and I had to master a new language and gain an understanding of the cultural perspectives of Dominicans.

Right away, I was tested. I had taught high school in Chicago, but my new assignment was training a group of rural schoolteachers much older than me, in five subjects, and in Spanish. Two years later, after becoming fluent, I extended my service and taught at the Dominican Republic’s premier university. My boss was a dynamic leader and a Spanish Jesuit priest, who had been Fidel Castro’s secondary school headmaster in Cuba.

I had never heard of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) before, but due to this USAID-supported university program, I had a front-row seat to observe the great success of USAID programming in action. It gave me a very positive view of what USAID could do. I saw accomplished education experts who were interested in working in concert with their Dominican counterparts as they provided outstanding technical expertise in a collaborative manner. I admired the USAID team who worked at the university, and of course, little did I know at the time how much this experience with USAID would impact my future life and career.

You talk about many leadership opportunities and success in your book. In your view, what makes a great and effective leader?

I was fortunate during my career that I had some outstanding mentors who supported me, who were role models in terms of leadership style, and gave me some extraordinary career opportunities.

I have tried to be a student of leadership, and overall, I’ve always strived to be a decisive servant leader, an effective communicator, listener and delegator.

I believe that we grow most by challenging ourselves, by stepping out of our comfort zone. One should take calculated risks, because tremendous personal growth and resilience will come from such an effort.

Second, one of the most important things in life is building positive relationships. Whether it is in the realm of politics, diplomacy, or business, real change is achieved through such relationships.

Further, I have always believed that America’s multiracial and multiethnic diversity is one of our great strengths, and so it’s crucial that we seek ways to pursue diversity across all organizations.  For example, the more diversity you bring into the “C-suite” of the foreign policy agencies—where the highest-ranking senior executives work—the larger the cadre of people who have a different perspective on the world and how we should interact in it, resulting in a better-informed dialogue and policymaking capability.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in their career looking to go into public service?

First, do the research, and gain an understanding of the mission and scope of the organization where you’re looking to work. Once you’re inside the organization, learn your job. Aim to excel. Be purposeful about that. You need to plan to have a diverse set of experiences in your career, which may mean volunteering for those jobs that are perhaps not the most exciting, but important to the mission. Be curious, try to understand and appreciate your colleagues’ jobs, across the organization. Also, seek out mentors (both formal and informal) to help you advance in your career, so develop broad networks inside and outside of the organization ... it’s an essential part of a successful career.

And, most importantly, embrace Failure. No one likes to fail or plans to fail in their job. But it happens!

Bob Gates, who has been one of America’s most distinguished leaders over the past three decades (including as Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, President of Texas A&M University, and President of the Boy Scouts of America) provided a valuable lesson in his book, A Passion for Leadership: “If a leader hasn’t experienced failure, then his education is incomplete.” 

So, embrace failure. Use it as a platform for learning and growing. Often what appears to be a major career setback can often lead to significant career opportunities, and I’ve seen this in both my career and with my colleagues.

You mentioned that the key to the recurring theme in your life of “opportunities suddenly appearing before you at the perfect time” was focusing on forming and nurturing meaningful relationships. Are there any relationships that you feel were especially nurturing to you as a young person just starting out?

My first boss in the Peace Corps was Henry Reynolds. I describe him in my book as a renaissance man: “an educator, a scuba diving instructor, a social worker, a jazz aficionado, and then an amazing Peace Corps executive.” I knew him as a decisive and supportive supervisor who gave me opportunities to learn and to grow. He celebrated my successes and worked with me to deal with the inevitable challenges that one faces in tough situations.  

I also need to mention my first boss at USAID in the Honduran mission, Tony Cauterucci. He was a servant leader before that became a thing. The key lessons, including respect for our partners, both American and Honduran, decisive decision making, rational risk taking and providing clear guidance to your team…all this I observed while working for Tony, and this style of management has been the cornerstone of my leadership style throughout my career. He was an exceptional leader, and I consider myself fortunate to have started my USAID career in his office.

In the beginning of your book, you discuss growing up in segregated Chicago, and your impressions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s experience in the civil rights battles in that city, which he characterized as more hostile and hate-filled than anything he ever encountered in the Deep South. Coming from that generation, what did it mean to you to not only see the first Black president elected, but to also lead an agency in the Obama-Biden administration? 

There is no higher calling than to serve our great nation. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer transformed my life and set the stage for me to become a global executive with a career spanning three sectors in government, business, and the non-profit world. I was fortunate that my career came full circle, and I had the honor and privilege to lead this iconic American institution that has promoted world peace and friendship for 60 years.

Can you tell us about one of the most rewarding experiences you had working in the Obama administration?

I had the great pleasure to participate in the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. We were determined to hold a worldwide celebration that would highlight this significant landmark in the agency’s history and celebrate the legacy of this American success story—and to recognize the agency’s continuing role in American life and history.

My senior staff and I traveled to fifteen countries and twenty states as part of the fiftieth anniversary. Our trips to visit the volunteers in the host countries were a great privilege, and in my visits, I stressed the importance of the individual and collective service of our Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and my personal connection with the work of the modern PCV. What a sight it was to see volunteers on the front lines, working in microbusiness-support organizations to create new women-owned small businesses, teaching math and science in rural primary schools, distributing mosquito nets in remote villages to fight malaria, working in HIV/AIDS clinics, or helping small farmers improve irrigation systems. The variety of PCV assignments was truly spectacular, from leading young girl empowerment clubs in rural Jordan, to coaching junior achievement classes in Nicaragua, teaching math in rural Tanzania, teaching internet technology in high schools in the Dominican Republic, teaching English as a second language in a girls’ school in rural Thailand, working on improved environmental protection practices in Filipino fishing villages, and helping to advise on improved livestock breeding techniques on farms in Ghana.

I was honored to be part of President Obama’s delegation on the presidential visit to El Salvador. I introduced him to a group of Peace Corps volunteers and got to see the wonderful interaction between the volunteers and the President.

Further, the President hosted a celebration at the White House in honor of the 50th anniversary of both USAID and the Peace Corps, in recognition of President Kennedy’s historic launch of these two agencies. In the event he described how the Peace Corps represents American values, presents an authentic face of America overseas, and contributes to the cause of global peace and friendship.

What is the current status of the Peace Corps in the post-pandemic world?

A:  This is a time of renewal for the Peace Corps. In March 2020 all Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated during the pandemic—a flawlessly executed operation by the Peace Corps’ leaders, both in headquarters and in the host countries. Now, under the terrific new leadership team, the agency is once again opening up. The first countries to welcome volunteers back in 2022 were Zambia and—coincidentally—the Dominican Republic, where I first served. I understand that there is a worldwide call for Peace Corps volunteers to return to service, and the Peace Corps is returning Volunteers to service on a rolling basis until all posts have reopened.

Finally, an observation about the new generation of leaders, as reflected by Peace Corps Volunteers. One of the joys of being Peace Corps director was having the opportunity to observe this impressive new generation who served in the Peace Corps, both overseas and then subsequently as staff in headquarters and in the regional USA offices. They are doing outstanding work, and I have great faith in their ability to take the baton of leadership in the future and make important contributions to our nation in all facets of our society. It’s always gratifying when returned PCVs introduce themselves to me in airports or at events in the United States and overseas. They often tell me that serving in the Peace Corps transformed their lives, and I always respond that it also transformed mine, and that we share this common experience. We all belong to quite an amazing “alumni” group.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Aaron Williams (Senior Advisor—Emeritus, International Development & Government Relations) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.