Promotion Unicorns and the Case for Humility

Speaking Out


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Every year stress levels of Foreign Service employees are at an all-time high when they need to prepare their promotion materials. To play the game, we must look for ways to make accomplishments appear bigger and more far-reaching. We search for that powerful verb or adjective to make results stand out from the rest.

Many take credit for as much as they can, even when it defies what is possible for one person to achieve in a government bureaucracy—let’s just put it all in and hope the promotion boards will buy it! Those who supervise an office may commit the unsavory but all too common act of taking credit for everything their unit accomplished and making it their own.

Too many of us accept this as what we “have to do” to get promoted. Is it really? No, it is not. That is the surprising conclusion of the independent research I conducted recently on the topic of Foreign Service promotions.

The Case for Humility

Admittedly, the supercharged, high-stakes, competitive Foreign Service career doesn’t naturally cultivate humility; in fact, it has a way of pushing everyone to become obsessed with the climb to the top. Yet there are countless studies highlighting the critical importance of humility in leaders.

For instance, Jim Collins—the researcher, leadership teacher, management guru, and author of Good to Great (2001)—found humility to be one of the two common traits found in CEOs of companies that transitioned from average to superior market performance.

My research brought me to a similar conclusion on its importance for advancement in the Foreign Service. I interviewed 14 “promotion unicorns” at USAID—FSOs who had flown up the ranks (from an FS-6 to an FS-1 in 11 years or less) from different support and technical backstops and are now serving in varying levels of senior leadership. While they noted myriad factors that led to their fast rise, I was surprised by one, in particular, that I observed with my own eyes—humility.

I saw humility when interviewees openly admitted mistakes they made early on in their careers—or for some, more recently—and recounted the steps they took to change themselves. They acknowledged that the way they had done things was suboptimal; they heard the feedback given to them; and they pivoted away from doing things in the way that was most comfortable to them.

Instead, they adopted a new way of working that pushed them outside their comfort zone. And they were willing to stay in that uncomfortable place for as long as needed to ensure that the necessary change happened. They did this for the benefit of their subordinates, peers, and the agency.

I was floored by these revelations. A cynical part of me had gone into the interviews expecting to meet proud, possibly narcissistic, individuals who would flaunt how they had gamed the promotion system. That was not at all what I encountered. The unicorns shared with me their constant desire to be better and to learn from those around them.

The supercharged, high-stakes, competitive Foreign Service career doesn’t naturally cultivate humility; in fact, it has a way of pushing everyone to become obsessed with the climb to the top.

One explained that when he started every new post, he would convene a meeting and tell his new team that the local country team members would always be more experienced than he was, and he relied on them to guide him in his daily work.

I was speechless when I heard this. I found myself wondering, Is this guy for real? While most of us start a new job trying to prove ourselves to those who don’t know us, this guy comes in doing the complete opposite! Yet, clearly, doing so has worked in his favor.

Constructive Feedback and Corridor Reputation

Many interviewees expressed gratitude to past supervisors who gave them constructive feedback. They acknowledged they had blind spots and were grateful to supervisors who had been willing to point them out so they could change.

Getting constructive criticism, I believe, played a role in keeping the unicorns humble. If all an officer ever heard was that they were perfect and great, wouldn’t that get to the person’s head sooner or later?

I suspect constructive feedback is harder to come by nowadays. In the Foreign Service, an officer’s “corridor reputation” is everything. What people say and think about you matters and may determine whether you get the plum assignment you want or not. As a result, some officers are afraid to give honest, direct feedback because they are afraid it will be used against them.

The Foreign Service world is an unpredictable roller-coaster ride. Your subordinate today could be your boss tomorrow. When dealing with difficult colleagues, it may feel easier to just put up with them until one of you changes assignments than to confront them head-on.

On top of this, in recent years USAID has implemented multisource ratings (MSR); everyone from your subordinates and peers to higher-ups gets to rate you—anonymously. People are surprisingly brave and honest in their feedback under the veil of anonymity.

MSRs are an integral part of the package that the promotion boards see. I would be surprised if there were any supervisors who didn’t think about their own MSR ratings just for a hot second before they moved forward with giving a subordinate some constructive feedback. Let’s be real about that.

If we can all start from a place of accepting that none of us is perfect, that we can all find something to improve on, and that feedback is a gift, we can create a culture where it’s easier to give and receive feedback. Let’s encourage humility so we remain open to improving our performance and becoming the kind of leader our agency needs.

Promotion as a Goal?

Another big discovery is that the majority of promotion unicorns had no “approach” for getting promoted quickly, because promotion was never their goal to begin with. They were motivated by intrinsic factors, though they did acknowledge some external factors that helped them succeed. These are as follows:

  • Lifelong learning. The individuals I interviewed love continuously learning, on the job and outside the job.
  • Diverse professional experiences. Unicorns think outside the box when looking for professional opportunities; they are not afraid of trying new things or changing backstops.
  • Mentoring. Unicorns credit good mentors among past supervisors and front office individuals with guiding them toward success.
  • Writing skills. Unicorns feel confident they know how to write about their skills and accomplishments in a compelling way.
  • Ability to link everyday work to U.S. government policy. Unicorns are confident in their ability to convey the impact of their work to Congress and the interagency.
  • Hardship service. Unicorns often serve at hardship posts where there were more stretch opportunities to have greater responsibilities.

All of these factors contribute to fast promotions.

Take your ego out of the workplace and refocus on the needs and objectives of your team and agency.

One Disturbing Trend

While conducting the interviews, I did uncover one disturbing trend that is the antithesis of humility: I heard complaints about egotism among new officers from several unicorns and USAID staff with roles supporting FSOs who had cited the importance of humility in their success.

Some of the more recent recruits, they observed, want to be ambassadors and mission directors yesterday. They are in such a hurry to climb up the career ladder, they risk destroying the ladder itself in their haste.

These junior officers ignore the host country national staff, who have the knowledge and institutional memory of the mission; and in doing so, they miss out on one of the great learning opportunities offered to them.

They only want to engage with higher-ups, to be more visible, and to garner favor they hope will translate into better assignments and faster promotions. They take on additional tasks only after assessing whether the task is promotion-worthy and will say yes only if it is something they can write about in their promotion package.

By operating in this way, these junior officers are doing a disservice to themselves in the long run. Take note, new officers!

From the moment you say hello, your corridor reputation starts being developed. If you treat locally employed staff poorly, brown-nose to higher-ups, cherry-pick only the tasks that will get you promoted—what do you think people are going to say about you?

When a potential supervisor at a desired post does an informal background check on you, asking around, beyond the references you provided, what are those people going to say about you? Will what they say help your chances of getting that job?

This is what you need to think about every time you have the opportunity to interact with anyone and every time you are asked to do something. I urge you to show some humility.

In this day and age, humility is the gold standard for a leader. Start admitting what you don’t know. Welcome others who know more to join in the brainstorming session. Do not be afraid to admit mistakes and course-correct. Take your ego out of the workplace and refocus on the needs and objectives of your team and agency.

Why did you join the Foreign Service in the first place? Remember your “why” and cultivate and display humility along the journey toward achieving your purpose in the Foreign Service.

Yikee Adje is a USAID Foreign Service officer and executive coach who is passionate about helping members of the Foreign Service build strategic relationships for career advancement and working with teams to streamline their internal work processes to overcome the government bureaucracy for greater productivity. She is the author of DIPLOMATICALLY: A Guide for Creating Work-Life Balance in the Foreign Service (2023). Connect with her at


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