Leadership | U.S. diplomats need to be courageous leaders for the 21st century

Zed Tarar

This piece is part of a series on Leadership by members of the broader ISD community. In this post, current FSO Zed Tarar calls for the Foreign Service to adopt a more courageous approach to leadership development.

American flag flies outside U.S. Embassy in London
The American flag flies outside the U.S. Embassy in London (Image: U.S. Embassy London/Flickr)

It’s summer 2010. I’m awkwardly perched on the edge of a sofa balancing a notebook on my knee, feebly attempting to project an air of seriousness to distract from my 27 year-old, bespectacled face. Next to me is a U.S. ambassador (my ambassador in diplomatic parlance) and across sits the foreign minister of the Gulf nation I had found myself in four months after joining the Foreign Service.

In that moment I realized that even the senior most leaders in my organization saw me as a colleague — not an underling, a briefcase carrier, or a faceless cog in the massive machine called the U.S. government. For, I had been told, the Foreign Service was a first name organization, and despite its hierarchy, U.S. diplomats nurtured and rewarded intellectual freedom and frankness.

More than a decade later, I am afraid the U.S. diplomatic service is losing that foundational esprit de corps built on an egalitarian and merit-based foundation. Browse any foreign policy publication from the past six months and you will read about a cottage industry on the need to reform foreign policy and the State Department. The tactical specifics vary but the diagnosis remains constant — institutions must adapt for the challenges ahead, including the existential threat of climate change, pandemic disease, and global wealth inequality.

Yet, I see a bureaucracy paralyzed by risk aversion and an exodus of talent, while new additions to the diplomatic service have slowed to a trickle. At perhaps no other time in recent history has the character of career diplomats serving the United States mattered as much as it does today, with global uncertainty and rapid change swirling around us. This is why I find myself thinking back to those humid months from my first foray in diplomacy — the leadership exhibited by my ambassador and his deputy shaped my career for the next decade. If we are to meet the challenges ahead as professional diplomats, it will only be through effective leadership.

The literature on leadership is vast and identifying the particular weaknesses that plague the diplomatic service can be daunting. Nonetheless, in my experience, two aspects that hamper effective leadership within the State Department are a systemic risk aversion and low-courage managers.

Dan Cavallo and coauthors wrote in the Harvard Business Review early last year that chronic risk aversion plagues large organizations, noting, “CEOs are evaluated on their long-term performance, but managers at lower levels essentially bet their careers on every decision they make — even if outcomes are negligible to the corporation as a whole.” Nowhere is this truer than in the foreign affairs community. Taking a chance on a new idea may pose negligible risk to the organization, but failure would likely prove consequential to the reputation of the risk-taker. Ambassadors Bill Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield put this succinctly in an essay in 2020 in Foreign Affairs on reforming the State Department:

A seismic cultural shift is needed to create a more upstanding, courageous, and agile institution, with greater tolerance for risk and a simplified, decentralized decision-making process.

Compounding the systemic risk aversion at the individual career level is what Gallup Research terms “low-courage managers,” — middle-managers who always agree with their superiors while absolving themselves of responsibility to their team members with phrases such as, “if things were up to me, they’d be different,” and “headquarters said it has to be this way.” Gallup’s research shows that these managers, while held in high regard by their superiors and sometimes able to engender a sense of loyalty among their team members, ultimately lead to dysfunctional organizations. Under-resourced teams lead to burn-out, while senior leaders are deprived of unvarnished reality and left unprepared for setbacks.

Foreign policy failures are riddled with unheeded warnings from mid-level diplomats in the trenches. Burns and Thomas-Greenfield arrived at a similar conclusion, writing that within the Foreign Service, “initiative should be prized, and the passive-aggressive habit of waiting for guidance from above should be discouraged.”

Having identified the weaknesses to address, how does one remedy the situation? There are no pithy answers, but one place to start is to cultivate leadership at all levels. This means going beyond mandatory one-week seminars with endless PowerPoint presentations and opting instead to democratize leadership development by devolving decision-making to lower levels while identifying and cultivating proven competencies that contribute to effective leadership.

Bill Burns, in his book The Back Channel, writes of these types of experiences early in his career in the 1980s, when he worked alongside more senior colleagues at State’s policy planning staff and later at the National Security Council. State needs to nurture and reward competencies that matter, such as relationship-building, empathy, and courage, while resisting the urge to promote individuals who simply display archetypical personality traits of corporate leadership, which Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, the author of “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?,” defined as self-centered overconfident narcissism. As Chamorro-Premuzic writes, relying on personality archetypes as a heuristic for leadership potential excludes individuals who excel at finding compromise and working well with others — traits more likely to be found in women, and likely one of the many reasons women are underrepresented in leadership roles in government and business.

While the challenges before us are vast, I remain hopeful that U.S. diplomats, some of the most talented and committed individuals the nation has to offer, will adapt and emerge as effective 21st century leaders.

Zed Tarar is a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service and is currently serving in London.

The author is a career Foreign Service Officer and writing in his personal capacity. His views do not reflect that of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

Read more insights from Foreign Service Officers on diplomatic leadership:

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges