They began as the hot favourites of the United States, but at one time or the other, fell out of favour.
Just as the support of the United States is absolutely essential for securing the job, disenchantment with it is part of the occupational hazards that the UN chiefs face.
Kurt Waldheim left New York unscathed as the United States supported him for an unprecedented third term, but he ended up becoming persona non grata on account of his alleged deeds in a previous incarnation.
Javier Perez De Cuellar was colourless enough to fade away, but was held responsible for not preventing the Falklands war.
Boutros Boutros Ghali declared himself 'unvanquished' after his spat with the United States, but could not get the customary second term, even though he had the overwhelming support of the rest of the membership.
Kofi Annan is already the unfortunate victim of the Gulf war.
The joke about Waldheim (left) was that every time he faced a crisis, he licked his forefinger and held it up to see which way the wind blew, like sailors did in the old days. By following the wind, he steered clear of the icebergs and whirlpools of the cold war world.
But he did not have a single success to speak of, even though he vigorously intervened in issues such as Cyprus, Iran-Iraq war, China-Vietnam war and the American hostages in Iran.
He also visited South Asia in 1973 in a quest to resolve India-Pakistan differences. He faithfully paraphrased General Assembly resolutions in his speeches so as not to be accused by the US of hurting its interests.
I met him mostly on ceremonial occasions and heard him speak in generalities. Had the Chinese not vetoed him over and over again, he would have been the first Secretary General to get a third term. His 'headwaiter' image suited the major powers, except China, which favoured a Secretary General from the developing world.
Many years later in Vienna, I found that he is an impressive and gracious person with a keen sense of humour. He spoke warmly of India and his best Indian friend, C V Narasimhan, (a former Indian Civil Service officer and Under Secretary General of the United Nations) whenever we met at national day receptions in Vienna.
He was at his reflective best at a gathering of UN veterans occasioned by the visit of a former UN chief of protocol at the Egyptian residence.
He recalled how a UN Secretary General was complimented for his 'superficial' speech and was asked to publish it 'posthumously,' the sooner the better! He remains alert and healthy at 88.
Perez de Cuellar (above) was lucky in many ways. Peru had put him up as a candidate for the post of Secretary General only half heartedly and he was not really in the race at the initial stages.
After many rounds of voting at which Waldheim and Salim Salim of Tanzania were vetoed repeatedly by China and the US respectively, the young President of the Security Council, Olara Otunnu of Uganda, asked the permanent members during a lunch break to indicate whom they would not veto in a slate of a dozen candidates.
Having found that Cuellar was the only one without a veto, Otunnu proceeded to a quick vote of the whole Council and declared him elected. By the time we came back from lunch, Cuellar, who was fishing in his village in Peru was elected Secretary General.
Cuellar too spoke in generalities and never pushed an idea. But his term saw a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the release of American hostages in Lebanon and the advent of peace in El Salvador. A part of the credit for all this went to him and his chef de cabinet, Virendra Dayal of India.
As the head of the International Organizations Division in Delhi, I took care of Boutros Boutros Ghali (below), when he came to campaign for India's vote. He came late into the field after four African candidates were already in the fray, but it was obvious that he was the favourite of the Americans and I had no doubt that he would be the next Secretary General.
He had a good equation with then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and he had no difficulty in securing our support. But he had to stay on his own in Delhi for nearly a week to await meetings in China and I spent several evenings with him.
An Arab Coptic Christian, married to a Jew, a professor of international law, a minister of state for foreign affairs of Egypt for many years and a fluent French speaker, he had all the qualifications for the job. His intellectual agility and sense of history were truly impressive.
As Secretary General, Ghali was the right man at the right place at the right time. He bristled with new ideas at a time when the UN needed to readjust to the new world. After declaring that he would not seek a second term, Ghali went about reforming the UN with a messianic zeal.
He was the most fiercely independent Secretary General since Dag Hammarskjöld. His 'Agenda for Peace' was the most comprehensive effort ever made to alter the architecture of the UN. He propounded the theory that the concept of state sovereignty should undergo a change and advocated humanitarian intervention in deserving cases.
He wanted a force to be placed at the disposal of the Secretary General to be deployed at short notice in any part of the globe. He was proactive in guiding Security Council Action in Yugoslavia and Somalia. Virtually every member of the UN felt uneasy about him at one time or another and the inter-governmental bodies curtailed his enthusiasm for reform by modifying his ideas.
I worked with Ghali in my capacity as the Chairman of several UN bodies, among them, the Security Council Committee on an Arms Embargo Against South Africa, the Committee on Programme and Coordination, the General Assembly Consultations on Financing for Development and the General Assembly Working Group on UN Reform.
He drew up realistic targets for our work, gave valuable advice and rendered every assistance to us. His autocratic ways earned him the nickname, 'Pharaoh' and he was accused of aspiring to be a General rather than a Secretary General.
He, in turn, called the Agency Chiefs 'barons' as they pursued their own agendas independent of the UN. He reduced a number of high level posts, but appointed even a larger number of advisers at the same level.
But his erudition, innovation and courage earned him the support of most members of the UN, except the US He narrates his innumerable quarrels with Madeline Albright in his book of revenge and admits: "I had foolishly disregarded her increasing political influence in Washington."
Though he was denied a second term, he left his imprint on the UN at a critical time in its history.
I met Kofi Annan long before he became the Secretary General, when he was a rising star in the UN hierarchy. He was the 'Controller', the person in charge of budget and finance during my days in the Committee on Programme and Coordination and then the Chief of Peacekeeping Operations during my days as the Deputy Permanent Representative.
What I remember most about him of those days are his unfailing courtesy and personal charm inside the conference rooms, on the Roosevelt Island cable car or at my own East End Avenue apartment. His competence and self-confidence were on display both at the Committee on Programme and Coordination, where he enlightened us about the intricacies of the UN budget and at the innumerable meetings with troop contributors, where he outlined the constraints of peacekeeping operations.
On the day Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, I happened to be in the delegates dining room at the UN, totally oblivious of what had happened back home. Annan, who was observing me from another table, realised from my body language that I was unaware of the tragedy.
He walked over to my table slowly, took me aside and said that as soon as I finished my lunch, I should go down to the lounge and watch CNN. He did not answer when I asked him what happened so as not to spoil the mood of the party. Although he was cool and collected as he spoke to me, I knew him well enough to realise that something serious had happened. I lost no time in rushing to watch CNN.
As Secretary General, Annan put his infinite charm and long experience in the UN to good use.
His fortes are effective management of the UN resources and efficient use of his personal diplomacy in crisis situations. Iraq dominated his entire tenure in one way or the other. He tasted successes, failures and tragedy in Iraq; he even faces a scandal in that connection.
But the overwhelming support he enjoys among the members is testimony to his essential goodness. He was not an idle spectator when a coalition of the willing rather than the international community decided to take enforcement action and pushed the Security Council into the biggest crisis it ever faced.
He kept the UN engaged despite US defiance and established that it is the UN alone that can provide the healing touch. He has won many laurels, but he will be judged by history for what happens in his last two years in the UN rather than for his first forty years.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and former governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna
Encounters: More in Ambassador Sreenivasan's series on interesting people