BY MICHAEL PELLETIER
Over the last several months, we have bid farewell to many of our mentors and former leaders, officers and colleagues who taught us much of what we know of the practice of diplomacy and of being a part of the Department of State. This has led many to regret a perceived dearth of leaders in the department and the foreign affairs community.
While I certainly share the sense of missing so many of my former colleagues and friends in the hallways, I think we all must actively reject the idea that we lack leaders. Rather, I firmly believe this is a moment when we all have an opportunity—indeed, a responsibility—to step up and own our own leadership roles in the department. We must honor the legacy and the teachings of those who preceded us and take up the mantle of leadership ourselves.
We have a rare and perhaps unique chance to step up and help build and maintain a Department of State of which we can all be proud. That will take many individual acts of leadership across the department every day at all levels.
We all profess to support and encourage professional development and training opportunities for our teams. We now must make the tough decisions to make that support real. While it is inconvenient and difficult to handle a staffing gap due to a team member being out for training or to pursue a professionally enhancing opportunity outside the office, we must live up to our declarations of support and actually encourage and reward our team members for taking up such opportunities.
I was a deputy chief of mission at a very busy post, and I know how difficult it can be to make such decisions. They are in the best long-term interest of the department, but can make meeting immediate deadlines difficult. If we are to be the leaders we should be, and if we are to build the department we want to leave for the next generation, we must make those tough decisions.
We all profess to support and value diversity in the workplace, as it is so vital to truly represent all of these great United States of America and to get the full benefit of all of the ideas, experiences and insights of our entire workforce. We now must show leadership and ensure that our decisions reflect the value we place on that diversity—in terms of professional development opportunities, in terms of hiring, in terms of seeking out and valuing input and debate. We are all busy and rushing to meet deadlines, but we must demonstrate the leadership skill to take an extra moment to ensure that all voices and opinions and thoughts are truly heard and considered.
Each of us, in his or her own role, has myriad opportunities to show leadership and to shape the department and the Service in some way, large or small. Our choices about how we engage in our offices, divisions and bureaus—the behavior we model daily—are opportunities for us to lead and to create a Department of State of which we can be proud. The department’s leadership and management principles (see box) provide excellent guidance for demonstrating good leadership.
I remember a public affairs officers’ conference years ago when a group of senior PAOs from the largest posts in that region went out to dinner together. We compared notes and engaged in the longstanding tradition of complaining about how Washington didn’t understand our realities at post. We wondered amongst ourselves what had happened to the strong senior PAOs we remembered from our early days as entry-level officers, those individuals who could set all this straight.
Eventually, one of my colleagues, who was smarter and more aware than I, looked around the table, and noted that we were now that cohort. It was we ourselves who were not providing the leadership and mentorship we were looking for!
We have a rare and perhaps unique chance to step up and help build and maintain a Department of State of which we can all be proud.
Moving up at every stage often catches us unaware that way, and we must make a conscious and intentional effort to understand and recognize the importance of continuing to step up and lead. As my colleague did at that dinner long ago, we must all remind each other explicitly that we have both the chance and the responsibility to lead at our own levels and in our own ways.
We must consciously combat narratives implying that we lack leaders. We are leaders, and we must assert that continuously. This type of growth is an ongoing process throughout our careers, from day one.
In India our outstanding entry-level teams across the mission taught me and all of us a great deal about leadership as they stepped up and put together superb professional development programs. They led by example—identifying areas they wanted to learn more about, putting together programs to fill gaps, and sharing their experiences and their knowledge with others.
At one consulate, realizing that the consular section faced nearly 100 percent turnover one summer, they took the initiative to put together one of the best and most effective onboarding programs ever. They didn’t sit around and complain about needing more senior officers to set this straight; rather, they acknowledged their own abilities to address the challenge and moved to solve it, making themselves better officers and their consulate stronger in the process.
Leadership is not reserved exclusively for the Secretary or under secretaries or assistant secretaries who set the hard foreign policy decisions at their levels. Leadership can and must also be part of all of our job descriptions. We each must exercise leadership in all of our decisions, large and small, at whatever rank and in whatever area we can. The department’s 10 leadership and management principles point the way.
Every day presents us with opportunities; the question is whether we take them. The turnover in the senior levels of the department makes it more important than ever that we do so, and that we consciously and intentionally choose to make the department the best it can be. We must lead it into the years and decades to come.