Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 is the President and CEO of the think tank New America. She served as director of policy planning for the Department of State from 2009–11 and Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) from 2002–09.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Slaughter discussed her most recent book “Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: Can you explain the significance of the title “Renewal” for your latest book?
Anne-Marie Slaughter: It’s a word and a concept that [is] in between “restoration” and “reinvention.” It’s not “restore” something that was in the past, but it’s also something short of complete “reinvention.” At some point, you can reinvent yourself, but for most of us, once you’ve hit a certain point in adulthood, you’re shaped by your past, just as countries are. It’s a process of looking backward to move forward, that you really have to look back to your past, to your experience, and face if you want to move forward and make real change.
DP: How have you personally transformed as a leader, especially given the lessons you learned from the controversies you and New America faced in 2017?
Slaughter: I lead really differently now, much more collaboratively, much more horizontally. I write in the book that I, for a long time, lectured on how to lead horizontally because I’m a network theorist as a scholar, and I’ve done a lot of work on how you lead when you have no direct power over people but only power with people. At the same time, I’ve been a leader obviously at Princeton, in the State Department, and since 2013, at New America. I deeply believe that collective process will get us to a better result.
DP: In your book, you talk about the importance of risk taking. Can you elaborate on how taking risks leads to personal transformation?
Slaughter: I don’t think you can transform without being willing to take lots of risks. You have to be willing to accept the risks of failure, the risks of classic mistakes, because if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not out of your comfort zone. And if you’re not out of your comfort zone, you're certainly not going to be able to make major changes.
I think people think of risks like Alex Honnold up there without a rope, or Tom Cruise in “Risky Business,” and yet, a lot of the people who take personal and social and economic risks don’t have that far to fall. You also have to recognize that, if taking risks means you lose your house or your livelihood, or your entire social status, you’re going to be more conservative, and that most of the risk takers have a sort of baseline of security. It certainly has always been true of me. I’m a white privileged woman who grew up in affluent circumstances, right? So this crisis in 2017 was the closest I’ve ever come to losing my job and in a setting that I was still going to be okay, but it would have been a dramatic life change. I reasoned from that [experience], if we really want people to take the kinds of risks we need them to take to change as a country, we also have to provide a baseline of security.
DP: As well as risk in the book, you also talk about grace. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that concept.
Slaughter: So I talked about faith and the idea that you don’t have to have a particular religion to be a person of faith. Grace is a concept that we find in many different faiths, but again, you can find it in nature too. But it’s the concept of giving people space and room to make mistakes, even when they offend you and even when they should know better. I’m writing this book at a time of dramatic challenge to the status quo and [it’s] good challenge to the status quo in so many areas. But I think we’ll get there if people are willing to grant a little grace, but also if we grant grace to others. It’s a way of being that acknowledges our common humanity and tries to give people a little extra space for learning, for failing, for stumbling.
DP: In the book, you talk about your personal journey, but as you mentioned in your last answer, you also have thoughts about what the world or the country can learn, as well. It made me wonder: how do you stay optimistic about the future during this time of reckoning?
Slaughter: With a lot of effort. I’m not blind to the national news. When I was writing this book, it was the first year of the pandemic. I mean, I started in late 2019, but a lot has happened during the pandemic. The summer of 2020 was the summer of George Floyd’s murder, following on the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and a time of renewed racial reckoning and recognition of really deep systemic injustice in this country. Politically, our democracy is more fragile now than at any time in my lifetime. And many of the things that I read in the newspaper, I sometimes feel like I’m living in some kind of alternate reality based on it.
The deep discrimination and second class citizenship status of many people of color is still very much here. But when we recognize those shortcomings, then we have to try [to remedy these issues]. A lot of turbulence is natural, it’s gonna happen, but fundamentally, there’s a kind of vision of this country that truly reflects the world that is worth fighting for. At the local level, not in national news, there are lots of reasons to think that that change is taking place and generating really positive outcomes of diversity, of cultural competence, and reaching a commitment … to human wellbeing and planetary survival.
DP: Kind of looking at some of the lessons in “Renewal,” what are some things that you want students from our generation to take away especially?
Slaughter: I would say for your generation, that I’m offering a different way to understand a lot of our history, one that is radically honest, but one that also lifts up marginalized voices in ways that … privilege solidarity as much as individualism. We’re never going to get where we need to go with a kind of traditional American rugged individualism narrative.
I also think, for your generation, there are a lot of leadership lessons in there, which if you learn earlier, so much the better, everything from running towards the criticism to learning how to share power, thinking about risk and resilience.
We’re [less than five years from 2026] which is going to be the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. If you are 18 to 22 right now, most of your life’s going to be lived on the other side of that anniversary in our second quarter millennium and in a country that will no longer be majority white and a country that will need to be re-founded and renewed on, I still think the ideals that are in the Declaration of Independence, but it’s up to you to make it yours.
DP: Going off with this idea just a little bit more, especially some of the lessons you’ve learned either professionally or personally, are there any lessons or takeaways that are specific to your time as either the Dean of [SPIA] or as a student yourself at Princeton that have been carried with you?
Slaughter: All of this will sound insanely old-fashioned, but I took the Princeton Honor Code really seriously. It was a commitment to academic integrity, but I think of it as a commitment to integrity more fully, [and] also the notion of “Princeton in the nation’s service.” You had a particular obligation as a Princetonian to be as honest as you could be, and to uphold your own principles as much as you could. I’ve learned since graduating how much being true to your principles also means being honest about your own failures and shortcomings and not just the things that you like to say about yourself.
DP: What comes next for you?
Slaughter: I’m deeply committed to New America. As I write in the book, it took me until I was 55 to realize I’m fundamentally an entrepreneur, but as of September, I will have been at New America longer than any other institution. I was at Princeton for nine years, but [that was] broken up by two years in government. We’re trying to build a new kind of public problem-solving organization, not just a think tank. [New America is] an organization that works directly with people that integrate technology, that is reflective of the country we’re becoming in our work, and so that is deeply satisfying work for me.
Naomi Hess is a news editor emerita who focuses on University policy and alumni affairs. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @NaomiHess17.
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