The Surprising Secret to Powerful Leadership

Speaking Out


Speaking Out is the Journal’s opinion forum, a place for lively discussion of issues affecting the U.S. Foreign Service and American diplomacy. The views expressed are those of the author; their publication here does not imply endorsement by the American Foreign Service Association. Responses are welcome; send them to

Being a good leader in the Foreign Service comes with a hefty amount of pressure. Will they respect me? Am I getting through? Do they get me? These are some of the questions constantly running through our heads.

It makes sense—the stakes are high. It’s vital for leaders to set the right tone for the sake of our teams but also for the greater mission of the State Department. Whether we’re leading an intern, a section, or an entire embassy, leadership means inspiring others to achieve their best.

But how do we get “there”? It would be tempting to just recommend additional training and professional development books. Do keep doing those things, as they are important and help us grow both personally and professionally.

Here’s the real secret though: It has nothing to do with external factors and everything to do with you. The surprising secret to powerful leadership is your happiness. Yes, happiness.

According to a 2019 article in Forbes magazine, “The happiest people make the best leaders, and conversely, unhappy people don’t make good leaders. In fact, the best leaders put their own interest ahead of others and are happy as a result of doing so.”

Before you skip ahead to the next piece, indulge me for a couple more minutes.

I, like some of you, had reached the breaking point in my career after almost two decades in the Foreign Service. I was burned out. I questioned the intensity with which I had been pushing my career. I couldn’t seem to keep up with my life. No amount of yoga and self-care would be enough to reset and recover when an ever-growing workload, turnovers, and constant understaffing meant almost always having to do two (or more) jobs at once. As my frustration grew, so did my unhappiness. I felt stuck.

Prioritize Yourself

What changed? Externally … well, nothing. At least nothing outside my control.

But what did change was my perspective, and that changed everything. I chose to prioritize myself and do the work to become happier—because happiness isn’t something that “happens” to me. It is something I have to create.

Thanks to the Una Chapman Cox Sabbatical Fellowship, I have had a year to learn and grow while exploring the relationship between leadership and happiness. You may be asking, “Isn’t good leadership all about self-sacrifice?” No, it is not.

The culture of self-sacrifice at the State Department is widely accepted and well ingrained.

But the culture of self-sacrifice at the State Department is widely accepted and well ingrained. I strongly believed, and many of us still do, that the best leaders are selfless and put other people’s interests ahead of our own. But I was wrong.

Decades of research, as presented in Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz’s The Good Life (2023), has shown that focusing on our own happiness directly correlates to more success, better health, and greater kindness, which benefits not just ourselves but others around us, too. Happiness leads to well-being, and well-being sustains happiness.

Why Your Happiness as a Leader Matters

Happy people are more productive and innovative, they inspire others, and they effect real and lasting change. Leadership—specifically, how a leader behaves day to day—is directly related to the organization’s performance. Your well-being as current or future leaders in the Foreign Service has a direct global impact.

So, how do we become happier and, in turn, improve our well-being? The first step is to recognize what happiness is not. Most of us in the Foreign Service look for happiness in all types of places like our dream post, the perfect job, or the next promotion. But even when we get all those things, happiness still eludes us. Why? We are so busy looking for it in achievements and temporary pleasures, we miss the fact that happiness is a direction, not a destination, as stressed by Harvard professor and social scientist Arthur C. Brooks.

Science has made great progress in understanding happiness, and research in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and sociology has uncovered important insights about what makes people happy. Building a happy life requires hard work and intentional effort. It boils down to prioritizing key areas of your life, including fulfilling relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners; pursuing meaningful goals and having a sense of purpose while being engaged in work and activities that align with your values; and focusing on your physical and mental health.

In short, happiness is about a wholeness of being that includes work—but is not limited to it. Because life is not just work. Life is also relationships, well-being, and purpose.

Leading with Happiness

Research by social scientists, including Tal Ben-Shahar, the creator of Harvard University’s most popular course on positive psychology (and my current professor of Happiness Studies), and Arthur C. Brooks, bestselling author and professor on the science of happiness, brings into clear focus why happy people make better leaders. It is because they lead with:

Emotional Intelligence: Happy leaders are more adept at understanding their own emotions as well as those of others, leading to stronger interpersonal relationships and effective communication.

Enhanced Collaboration: Happy leaders foster a more collaborative and supportive work environment. They encourage teamwork, cooperation, and inclusivity, leading to psychological safety and better group dynamics.

Increased Productivity: Happy leaders create a more engaging work culture, boosting morale and job satisfaction. This leads to increased productivity and better performance.

Adaptability: Happy people are able to adapt to change. In our constantly shifting work environment, leaders who remain positive and adaptable can guide their teams more effectively through transitions.

The best leaders manage their own well-being and normalize it as accepted behavior. They prioritize their health, delegate work, and establish and reinforce boundaries. The best leaders lead by example, and, as a result, individual and organizational well-being improves.

Right now is the time to elevate employee well-being to the top of the policy agenda.

The Role of the Organization

Maintaining your well-being should not be solely your responsibility; your home agency also has a critical role to play. Focusing on employee well-being would be, as Secretary Antony Blinken has said, “an investment in the future of America’s leadership in the world.” By helping employees improve their lives outside the office, your employer has the potential to increase employee motivation and productivity exponentially. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds that well-being at work is not just an afterthought but is pivotal in an employee’s decision whether to take, stay at, or leave a job.

There is a gap, however, when it comes to helping keep employees happy, healthy, and productive. Measures taken to improve employee well-being often occur after they reach burnout or are on the verge of leaving. Valuable measures are underway in wellness, innovation, and employee well-being at the department through TalentCare, CEFAR, and GTM, among others, to improve things, but they are not fast enough or at a scale to make an enterprise-wide difference.

Instead of being reactive, taking a more proactive role in improving employee well-being would go a long way. These measures could include, but are not limited to, incentivizing and recognizing leaders who support employee well-being in promotion and senior-level performance pay requirements; making early access to individualized health support and other specialist sources available to all employees, such as physical training, leadership/well-being coaching, and nutritionists; establishing metrics to examine and manage workloads; building a robust organizational framework to promote good mental health; and, most important, creating an executive-level position whose sole focus is employee well-being, as our colleagues in the CIA have recently done through the establishment of a “chief well-being officer.”

Embrace Our Common Humanity

In the end, maintaining our overall well-being boils down to embracing our common humanity. Those of us fortunate enough to have worked under Secretary of State Colin Powell can attest to why he was such an exceptional leader. He was the first to admit that he wasn’t perfect. He was human. As are we.

Think about past and present leaders who inspire you. Leaders who motivate you, demonstrate resilience and integrity, and are deeply committed to their values. Leaders who talk the talk and walk the walk. Are you that leader? If not, what needs to change? Can prioritizing your own happiness and well-being help?

We are living through extremely challenging times. Prioritizing our happiness and well-being inside and outside of work takes on a greater sense of urgency. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all formula on exactly how to begin our own journey. Science can’t predict what will work for each individual; that will come from personal reflection and figuring out what works for you.

Try doing an audit on your relationships, sense of purpose, and health. Consider what brings you the most joy, and compare that with what you actually do every day. For me, it looks like being fully present in each moment, seeking out jobs and projects that bring me a sense of pride and purpose, and being an active participant in my family’s life. What works for you?

Meeting in the Middle

The department has a distinct opportunity to better balance the work of its mission while putting its employees first. The will for change is there. When laying out the Modernization Agenda, Secretary Blinken said: “We have a window before us to make historic, lasting change, and we’re determined to seize it. … No one at the State Department expects their jobs to be easy. … But many have asked whether it has to be quite this hard.”

Right now is the time to elevate employee well-being to the top of the policy agenda.

In the meantime, we as individuals can recognize that to become powerful leaders, we need to put on our own oxygen masks first to better serve others. Prioritizing ourselves will make us stronger leaders who are more equipped to confront head-on the challenges we face every day as foreign affairs professionals living and working around the world. But achieving that requires our action—to demand what we need and to create real boundaries for ourselves.

So, let’s choose wisely, let’s choose our own humanity, and let’s call it happiness.

Johanna Villalobos is a Foreign Service officer and a 2023 Una Chapman Cox Sabbatical Fellow. Her fellowship year is devoted to personal and professional development while working with the private sector and academia to explore the relationship between leadership and happiness. She most recently served at U.S. Embassy Paraguay as long-term acting deputy chief of mission and public affairs officer. A public diplomacy officer, she has also served in Ecuador, Bolivia, Morocco, and Nicaragua, as well as at the Department of State and the Foreign Service Institute. Follow her journey on Instagram: @leading.happiness.


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