Emma Sky is Director Yale World Fellows and teaches Middle East politics and Global Affairs at Yale. She is the author of the highly acclaimed The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq and In a Time of Monsters: Travelling in a Middle East in Revolt. Emma served as advisor to the Commanding General of US Forces in Iraq; as an advisor to the Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan; as an advisor to the US Security Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and as Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk for the Coalition Provisional Authority.
How would you describe yourself?
I can’t describe myself in one word. I’m an academic, an adviser, an adventurer, and an author.
You have had a unique career path – in Iraq with the British Government and now a Professor at Yale. What choices led you to your current position?
I’ve always had a desire to address injustice and inequality – and to help build peace. So I went out to Jerusalem and found work in this field. And then I went to Iraq after the invasion and worked on really difficult issues. And after I gave a visiting lecture at Yale, I was then invited to teach here. My career has not been planned. And I’ve been fortunate. As Seneca, the Roman philosopher, once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.
I always remind myself that in my current role, I could make a wrong decision but no one would die as a result. (It’s not like being back in Iraq.) I believe it is important to try. Even if you make mistakes, you learn from them. So I always encourage others to be brave, to not fear failure, but see learning opportunities.
What excites you when you wake up every morning?
I like to listen to the BBC World Service to hear what is going on all around the world, to feel connected to the lives of others.
My career has not been planned. And I’ve been fortunate. As Seneca, the Roman philosopher, once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community.
Every year, the World Fellows program brings 16 people to Yale for the Fall semester. They are from different backgrounds and diverse disciplines. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress, some are grieving from the loss of loved ones, some are at transition points in their lives. But during their time at Yale, they discover what it is they have in common, and how together they can build a good society. It shows how you can create a ‘tribe’ out of any group of people, if you listen to each other’s stories, build trust, and share experiences. It is really wonderful to watch World Fellows heal and grow, and then to see how they take what they have learned with them back to their communities and share it with others.
What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
Sometimes I feel that I don’t deserve to be in the position that I’m in, that I’m not smart enough, that I have nothing to offer. This self-doubt remains even after all these years of being successful! I put a lot of effort into continuous learning, taking courses, self-improvement. The world is changing at such a rapid rate it is hard to keep up. And it is important to understand how things look to a young generation. So I try to spend time with my students outside the classroom, to get to understand their dreams and aspirations so that I can effectively mentor them.
How do you manage self care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?
I don’t separate “work” and “life”. I am fortunate that I love what I do, that I have the opportunity to travel all over the world to meet amazing people who are working really hard to make the world a better place. It is a great honour to be able to mentor them, and to connect them to others. I try to exercise regularly and to eat healthily. To follow creative pursuits. And to make plenty of time for friends. It is important to have a balance between head, heart, and hands.
I put a lot of effort into continuous learning, taking courses, self-improvement. The world is changing at such a rapid rate it is hard to keep up.
Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?
When I was a student, I really wanted to become a new “internationalist”, someone who could meet people anywhere in the world and find something in common with them. I certainly have achieved that. But I’ve also come to understand the backlash against globalization from those left out, and those left behind – and their anger at what they see as a global elite that has so much in common with each other, but not with their fellow citizens. So I believe it is as important to be connected to your local community, as it is to be connected to a global one.
What is the advice you would give your 16-year-old self?
Dream big, find good mentors, and don’t be afraid to fail – the mark of your character is how you pick yourself back up after a fall.
What are three values you think are most important for a global leader?
Empathy, humility, vision
What’s next for Emma?
Who knows what the future holds? But I hope I will have the opportunity to work either in the UK or for the UK overseas, building relationships and generating the trust necessary to address some of the most important challenges of our time.