This week I met the Danish Ambassador to Bangladesh. Dressed in a sharp dark blue suit and black shirt he looked rather sharp. But his physical appearance is accompanied with a contrasting relaxed demeanor fitting of a young musician. But he is a musician, it turns out. Mikael Hemniti Winther, in addition to his role as the Danish Ambassador to Bangladesh, is also a guitarist who jams with local musicians wherever he is posted and has even played at the Jazz Blues Festival in Dhaka. Just as his hobbies set him apart, his professional accomplishments set him apart as well. His career journey spans from teaching at Copenhagen University to holding top positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Denmark to being posted as Deputy Head of Mission in Vietnam to becoming the Ambassador to Thailand, Iraq, and Bangladesh.
But these are not the only things that make the Ambassador Winther special. After listening to him speak at the BYLC Talks hosted on October 10, 2017, I must say, his humor and perspectives on life, management, and happiness makes him different from other diplomats.
His remarks inspired us and challenged typical cultural beliefs. Some very memorable comments he made include:
“If you have an opportunity to do any public speaking, do it.”
When he first started out teaching he said he was so bad that students thought he was joking with them because he had his back to them the entire time. No, he wasn’t joking. He just wasn’t good at public speaking. He needed to learn how to present something to one person and he realized that it’s hard to really learn something until you teach.
- “Life isn’t just about money.”
Despite being from a well to do family, Ambassador Winther’s father believed that he should support himself. Through his jobs, he began to build his own personal resources alongside an ambition to make a lot of money. He wanted to be an auditor which in the financial industry was a really well-paying role. But he met a girl along the way who encouraged him to go backpacking instead. The experience of traveling through Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and India changed his life. That exposure to the world, the lives of those less privileged than him, and the different cultures impacted him deeply. He became aware of his own privileges especially growing up in a place like Denmark. He went from wanting to be a financial auditor to pursuing development economics and make a meaningful contribution for others.
- “Trust and absence of corruption are why Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world.”
Denmark has been no.1 and at lowest was no.3 in terms of global happiness. One can measure happiness in their daily life or their momentary happiness. But he says that’s not what you look at when you are measuring happiness on an international level. The World Happiness Report 2017 found that the main factors to rank high in happiness are caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income, and good governance. The Ambassador drew on this and noted that countries which pay the highest taxes are the happiest countries. This is because those taxes are being used to finance things that keep people happy. There needs to trust in people that their government is using the resources rightly. This trust also manifests itself in several ways such as knowing that your law enforcement will protect you, knowing that you are safe among your neighbors, and knowing there is no nepotism in the system.
- “I learned so much about management from a terrible boss because I do everything opposite to what he did.”
Ambassador Winther was always keen on learning management even though he did not know diplomacy would teach him so much about it. As an Ambassador, he said, you try to be the best representative for your country but you also have to be a leader for your organization and the people who work under you; you play a dual role. He thinks the top-down style of management is old and no longer applicable. At one of his first few posts in the foreign service, he came to work under a very difficult boss. It made him question whether he should even continue in the foreign service or address the situation. In the end, he decided to confront his boss and him the feedback that was due. Since then he has done things opposite to what he had seen his boss do. He believes in giving guidance to those he works with and empowering others.
- “Men have a responsibility (in terms of gender equality) because of our own biases.”
The Ambassador is a strong supporter of women. Under him, the Danish Embassy contributes a lot to empowering marginalized women in Bangladesh. But he himself has made a symbolic contribution to gender equality by taking on the surname of his wife upon their marriage. Many might find this shocking and some (like many of us at BYLC) find it awesome. He says one of the main ways to address gender equality is for men to deal with their own biases. Men must notice and correct themselves if they are undermining a woman, talking over them, or disempowering them in any way. Gender equality is definitely a responsibility of all men.
We thank the Ambassador for joining us at BYLC and giving our graduates such an incredible opportunity to learn from him and his ideas. I hope the next time he visits us at BYLC he will bring many more stories, his quirky wisdom, and of course, his guitar.