If You Mess Up, Fess Up

A retired FSO reflects on the utility of a piece of advice he took to heart during his career.


A piece of advice that I have occasionally offered to younger Foreign Service colleagues is that if you mess up, fess up, preferably as quickly as possible. We all make mistakes, and I believe it is much better for a supervisor to hear promptly and directly from you about your goof or oversight than later from someone else.

The most memorable occasion when I had to follow my own advice occurred late in 1994, while I was chargé ad interim at the U.S. embassy in Bucharest. It was customary for the local NATO chiefs of mission to meet monthly at different embassies, and it was our turn to play host.

On the appointed day, and according to our usual practice, three embassy officers met the arriving excellencies at the front gate and escorted them individually past the Marine guard to the ambassador’s second floor office. I greeted them there, and we drank coffee until everyone was present and the meeting could start in the nearby conference room.

This time, however, all escort officers were occupied with other envoys when the ambassador of France arrived and presented himself to the Marine guard. Not recognizing the ambassador, the Marine correctly asked to see his ID and inquired where he was going and for what purpose. The ambassador was still engaged with the guard when an escort officer came and led him upstairs.

As soon as he saw me, the ambassador steered me away from the rest of the group. Red in the face and quaking with indignation, he castigated me over his outrageous “mistreatment.”

In all his years of working with Americans—most recently as his country’s deputy chief of mission in Washington—he had always been treated with respect. It was inexcusable that he had just been dealt with like any visitor off the street, he sputtered. He concluded that he knew our new ambassador would be arriving shortly and promised to tell him exactly what had happened and about my diplomatic “failure.”

The verbal onslaught took me completely by surprise. What could I say? I apologized profusely, assuring him that no disrespect had been intended. All of the escort officers had, unfortunately, been occupied when he arrived, and the Marine guard was simply following standard procedure. However, it was my fault that no one had met and escorted him, a mistake I promised would not be repeated.

Once we had assembled in the conference room, the ambassador said he had an announcement to make. Though he invariably spoke only in French at such meetings, he pointedly said he would use English this time to ensure that he was fully understood (he knew that I did not speak French). He then repeated the story of his outrageous “mistreatment” by the Marine guard, calling it totally unacceptable and blaming me personally.

I briefly reiterated my apologies. The meeting then proceeded uneventfully. (Several of the NATO envoys told me quietly afterward that the French ambassador’s remarks had been completely uncalled for but that I had handled the situation correctly.)

Our new ambassador, Alfred Moses, came in early December. While briefing him on the many things that an arriving chief of mission needs to know, I related the story of my contretemps with his French colleague. I wanted him to be aware that he might get an earful about me and our embassy staff when they met. He told me not to worry about it.

Soon thereafter, the French ambassador invited Ambassador Moses to a diplomatic dinner at his residence. With a friendly wink, Ambassador Moses told me he would let me know afterward if his host had anything of interest to say.

The next morning he took me aside and said that the French envoy had indeed spoken to him about me. Instead of criticizing me, however, he had taken pains to say what a capable, professional diplomat I was, and how fortunate Ambassador Moses was to have me as his deputy.

I have no idea what led to the French ambassador’s volteface. Perhaps, on reflection, he realized that he had overreacted and let his temper get the better of him. As far as I am aware, he never again mentioned the incident with the Marine guard.

But from then on we always had an excess of escort officers available whenever we hosted the monthly NATO ambassadors’ meeting.

Retired Senior Foreign Service Officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent the majority of his 35-year career in or dealing with Central and Eastern Europe. His final two overseas posts were as deputy chief of mission in Sofia and then Bucharest. He served as Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson’s staff aide at Embassy Moscow from 1967 to 1968.