World leaders are often defined on the international stage by their ability to deploy diplomatic skills. The best of diplomats have deep knowledge on a wide-range of topics, a keen interest in and passion for people, an understanding of the world, an appreciation for words, insight into history, an ability to comment with facts and feelings, deftness in delicate conversations, an uncanny ability to execute with precision and exactness and, perhaps above all, physical stamina. The list is long and difficult to develop — which is why there are so few that are actually worthy of the title of diplomat to the world.
I’ve observed many diplomats over the years in a variety of situations. This week, I watched with amazement two extraordinary diplomats as they met with heads of state, interfaith leaders and church followers in Samoa, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji and Tahiti. Countless lessons in diplomacy emerged.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his colleague Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, along with their wives, are traveling through the South Pacific on a different, interesting sort of diplomatic mission.
After a meeting with New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a dynamic leader with her own impressive diplomatic and leadership skills, Elder Gong commented, "President Nelson is a natural diplomat." A true statement. It just happens to be a statement that could be applied equally to Elder Gong. Both men measure up to and exceed the list of skills required to be an influential diplomat.
President Nelson’s diplomatic skills have been deployed throughout his career as a heart surgeon and senior leader in the church. Then-Dr. Nelson travelled the world teaching other surgeons who often had to be persuaded to explore new approaches and ideas for healing the heart. As an apostle, he was given the ultimate diplomatic challenge to work with government officials in the communist countries of Eastern Europe to open up their nations to the church. With steely determination and velvet gloves, he spent years nurturing relationships, developing friendship and demonstrating the positive force the church would be in these countries. Eventually all the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain permitted the church to organize and operate within their borders.
Whether teaching surgical techniques, teaching missionaries the Latin origins of the word “repent,” leading a discussion designed to build bridges of understanding or providing compassionate words of hope and healing, President Nelson is a diplomat without equal. And, even with all of that, the diplomatic characteristic he may epitomize most is his matchless stamina and energy. At nearly 95 years old, he keeps an incomprehensible pace as he continuously travels the world to meet with the 16 million members of the global church.
The first apostle called by President Nelson after becoming the prophet to the church was Elder Gong. Their shared diplomatic temperament and skills make them an interesting complement on their current trip. After a little more than one year in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Gong has demonstrated an uncanny diplomatic ability to be present and fully engaged without saying a single word. He can lead from any point on the compass without ever drawing attention to himself or distracting from the flow of a conversation. He understands the difference between influence and power — and chooses diplomatically where and when to engage. His vast knowledge and deep understanding often positions him as one of the smartest people in any room. Elder Gong’s spiritual sensitivity and love of people is manifest in a quiet confidence to diplomatically convey strength in silence.
Yet, as all great diplomats, when needed, he will offer comments with such precision, power and perspective that he can, in an instant, frame or reframe a conversation, elevate the dialogue or expand the vision of what is possible. He never wastes a word or an opportunity to make a difference. Every diplomat must have a voice, and Elder Gong’s vital voice echoes a certain trumpet that impacts and inspires. In June, he will speak at the G20 Interfaith Forum where world religious leaders will gather, ahead of the G20 Economic Summit, to discuss religious liberty and the role of people of faith in communities around the world. Attendees at the forum will recognize a unique diplomat with the knowledge, compassion and skill to navigate truly crucial conversations.
In Samoa, leaders praised President Nelson and Elder Gong for the church’s commitment to education. Muslim leaders, including representatives and survivors of the two Christchurch mosque attacks, commented on the “oneness” they felt as they linked arms with President Nelson. Elder Gong’s clarion calls to members in large gatherings were simple, profound and filled with energizing compassion.
Both of these extraordinary men could lead or represent international businesses, foreign governments or global organizations in a most amazing way. The fact that President Nelson and Elder Gong have chosen to become diplomatic disciples of Jesus Christ and his church may be even more impressive. Diplomats of every stripe could learn much by pursuing the skills easily observed in the lives of President Russell M. Nelson and Elder Gerrit W. Gong.