When Kofi Annan was a college student in Minnesota, he vowed never to wear earmuffs.
It seems they offended the elegant Annan's sense of style. But the native of Ghana changed his mind after a midwinter outing nearly froze his ears off.
"Never walk into an environment and assume that you understand it better than the people who live there," he said in a 1994 speech.
It's an attitude that has helped Annan to become perhaps the most important and powerful secretary-general the United Nations has ever had. Almost immediately after he was named to the post in 1997, he has was thrown into dealing with the refugee situation in Central Africa.
In the years that followed, he been an important broker in several other diplomatic crises, among them:
The 1998 attempt to gain Iraq's compliance with U.N. Security Council regulations,
Talks to resolve the stalemate between Libya and the Security Council over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland;
The 1999 transition of East Timor to independence;
Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000;
Continuing efforts to quell the violence in the Middle East.
Annan also worked to make improvements within the United Nations. He introduced fiscal reforms and brokered a deal to get the United States to pay its debt to the United Nations, estimated to be at least $1 billion.
As Annan's first five-year term was winding to a close, he and the United Nations won one of the world community's greatest honors. In 2001, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Annan and the United Nations the famous Peace Prize.
In conferring the prize, the Nobel Committee said Annan "had been pre-eminent in bringing new life to the organization."
Annan was also elected to a second term that year.
Colleagues describe Annan as self-confident and candid, with a keen sense of humor. He has been a popular and familiar figure both inside and outside the United Nations.
He has practiced diplomacy at the United Nations for nearly three decades. In his former U.N. jobs as personnel director, budget director, security coordinator and refugee agency executive, he has served around the world, including postings in Ethiopia, Egypt, Switzerland and New York.
Before winning the agency's top job, he was the chief of peacekeeping at a time when those operations experienced unprecedented growth in the size and scope. At their peak in 1995, U.N. peacekeeping operations comprised almost 70,000 military and civilian personnel from 77 countries, called to service in such hotspots as the former Yugoslavia.
Annan first gained international recognition during the Persian Gulf War, when he negotiated the release of U.N. staff in Iraq. And after the United States refused to sanction a second term for his predecessor, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Annan found a new opportunity to move up in the ranks.
Annan's father was a provincial governor in Ghana and a Fante tribal chief. Annan speaks English, French and several African languages. He is married to Nane Lagergren, a Swedish artist and lawyer whose uncle, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, helped thousands of Hungarian Jews to escape from the Nazis during World War II.