The Foreign Service Journal, March 2007
T he debate over politically ap- pointed ambassadors is a per- ennial one, especially popular among career members of the For- eign Service, for obvious reasons. William Davnie’s recent Speaking Out column, “Political Appointees: A Cost- Benefit Analysis” (November 2006), made some excellent points on why many appointees fail in their jobs. However, the argument is not a simple one. Having worked for over a dozen ambassadors and served as DCM to five of them, both career and appoint- ed, during my 30-year Foreign Service career, I have seen firsthand how both appointees and career officers handle the demanding job of ambassador. But what constitutes success and failure? How do you measure them? There is no simple answer, nor, I believe, a single standard. There should be a measure, however, one that newly appointed chiefs of mission are aware of and that the State Department can use to evaluate their performance in meeting American objectives in their countries and mis- sions. In my experience, there are at least three distinct fields in which most chiefs of mission operate on a day-to- day basis. An ambassador can succeed (or fail) in any one of the three, quite independently of how he or she per- forms in the others. In fact, it is rare to find an individual who masters all three skills completely. Leading the Mission The first of these, and most obvi- ous, is serving as captain of the ship we call a diplomatic mission. The crew, with its resources, orders and charts, sails a foreign sea that, however placid it may seem, is potentially treacherous and, more often than one would like, unknown. The ambassador is in charge of the vessel and ultimately responsible for its fate. The job is often likened to that of a CEO, who oversees from a manage- ment pinnacle all aspects of the corpo- ration: effectiveness of purpose, human resources, finances, training, morale, profitability, security and so on. However, the diplomatic opera- tional environment is normally less defined than that of a firm and the chief shareholder, Washington, is a full participant. It is not uncommon to see ambas- sadors struggling to fulfill this role, whether they are political appointees — for many of the reasons Mr. Davnie explained in his previous column— or career diplomats, who come from a corps known more for intellectual and verbal skills than managerial and lead- ership qualities. In today’s Foreign Service, there may be a tendency for career officers to short-sell the impor- tance of mission management, some- how assuming, consciously or not, that one’s ability to argue the issues is more important than sailing the ship. Senior officers may also be remark- ably short on experience in managing an organization. I still remember ar- riving for a yearlong detail at the National War College as a newly mint- ed FS-1 who had never supervised an American employee. In sharp con- trast, my military colleagues were all old hands at running large units. This deficit of management expertise can be compounded if an ambassador advanced through the service more via Washington tours than through emb- assy experience. Mission direction in the field is full of challenges distinctly different from those one encounters domestically. The Importance of Feedback Compounding these and many other problems is a system that does not offer smooth feedback mecha- nisms to its local executive. Washing- ton often is not in a position to follow closely an ambassador’s management style. Locally, the gulf between the ambassador and DCM, on one hand, and the rest of the mission is a wide one. The staff’s tendency to play up to senior managers, or to be intimidated, can easily leave a front office in a bub- ble of false impressions, misplaced confidence and even hubris. How to Measure an Ambassador B Y J. M ICHAEL C LEVERLEY S PEAKING O UT 14 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A R C H 2 0 0 7 No matter how well ambassadors “talk the talk,” if they neglect “walking the walk” they lessen the likelihood of reaching diplomatic objectives.
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