Monday, May 27, 2013


Sitting across from the person I most respect in the Foreign Service, I was (as always) in awe not just of his competence, but of his surety.  I suppose one leads to the other, but I feel it's rare to be so comfortable with responsibility.  The only time I ever remember him second guessing himself was when he thought he'd done an unkind thing.*  That, too, I feel is rare -- the ability to wield power with kindness.  To be able to tell people they are in the wrong without making them feel small.  To take the time to see someone lowly in the midst of the sort of busy schedule that only the truly powerful can have.  To say "give us five more minutes" when your scheduler comes to let you know it's time to leave for the Hill.

I've searched everywhere for an adequate definition of 'leadership'; the dictionary definition is a little flat.  Peter Drucker said that "leadership is doing the right things."  That's surely close.  Susan Lyne says that it's about owning decisions.  No doubt.  The FS Core Precepts sum it up as innovation, judgment, openness to dissent, community service, team building...  You almost never read of the connection between compassion and leadership, however.  About how a true leader has the courage to be kind and will spend the energy to make you feel valued.

Machiavelli says it's better to be feared than loved.  Maybe my idol is secretly ruthless.  But I don't think so.  He asks me where I'm going next.  "I really don't know," I tell him.  "Send me your bidlist and I'll help you to not make bad choices," he teases.  There's no way he has time for that.  But I'll send it to him and he'll somehow reply.  I don't think he has any clue what this kindness means to me.  It's hard not to stretch my hands across the table and declare, Ruth-like, "where you go, I will go; and where you stay, I will stay..."  He would laugh at the idea.  I keep my hands folded in my lap.

Part of me wants to ask him -- do you have some plan for me?  Because I have none for myself.  I have genuinely no idea what he wants me to be achieving.  I don't see in myself the things he seems to, and I feel deeply unworthy of his attention -- but so grateful for it.  I want to be the person he thinks I am capable of becoming; if I have any ambition, it is only to engender the same loyalty and gratitude in others as he does in me.  To not live up to his expectation would be devastating.  The ability to inspire that feeling is the best definition of leadership I know.

*He had not.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

'Tis the Season

I'd love to tell you that EER season is like hunting season or baseball season or flu season or really any other season than what it is most analogous to -- which is fashion season.  And not even professional fashion season; more like a season of Project Runway.  Writing an EER means cobbling together some 'fabulous' creation and then parading out your efforts in front of your peers, everyone waiting to see what the trends and buzzwords will be for this year (hint:  if you weren't recommended for promotion "immediately" this cycle, consider asking your rater what you did to incur his wrath -- and I hope you didn't fall into the pit of 'telling a breathless and exciting story' for your personal narrative!  Oh, sweetie, that's so 2011...).

Capable, intelligent, sensible people accustomed to making hard-hitting policy decisions like whether to press forward with a trade agreement or what socks to wear to that ribbon cutting ceremony -- people who write regularly and well in the routine course of their jobs -- will suddenly be paralyzed by the belief that an improperly formed sentence has more power to derail their careers than the actual accomplishments the sentence describes.*  Late at night on the day before my EER was due, I admit to having spent twenty sweaty minutes agonizing over whether to use the phrase "U.S. interests" or "U.S. concerns" in the last line of my carefully crafted Leadership Example paragraph.  TWENTY MINUTES.  When they fail to promote me this year, I'll know I made the wrong choice.  It will not be any less tragic and heartbreaking than Kimberly burning a hole in her bird-inspired dress in Season 9.

Theoretically our promotions depend upon demonstration of certain Core Precepts.  Every year, you must pick one of the Core Precepts to focus on as an area to improve.  At some point in murky FS history past, it was decreed that the precept "Interpersonal Skills" would be off limits as an area of improvement -- its appearance in your EER a definitive sign that you were unfit for service.  This is because (clearly) only mouth-breathing social invalids would ever need to work on that precept's sub-categories of "Professional Standards," "Persuasion and Negotiation," or "Adaptability."  When one particularly stellar EER I was reading for a review panel nevertheless indicated "Interpersonal Skills" as the employee's area of focus -- with the perfectly rational explanation that the person could do more in the "Representational Skills" sub-category in reaching out to local groups -- I am ashamed to say that I gasped.  But then reconsidered.  I can see bucking the "Interpersonal Skills" taboo becoming the exciting new EER trend for next season.  That and a pop of color.

*in fairness, it probably does.

Monday, May 06, 2013

"Those who stay at home may live more comfortably and grow richer than those who wander, but I desire neither to live comfortably nor to grow rich."

Recently someone asked me if I felt "secure" serving overseas.  "No," I told him, perplexed.  "But if I wanted to be secure, I wouldn't have volunteered for this career."  No one would suggest a soldier only be deployed if she had absolute security.  Why would it be different for us?

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "eating cereal on a Saturday morning at your parents' house in the suburbs" and 10 being "Dear Lord, very sorry for any wrongdoing; please be kind as I'll be with you shortly," I was normally around a 2 or 3 in Pakistan.  There were a few discrete times when I got to maybe an 8.  I remember one of the FSNs asking once that we leave a place.  "You only have the one life," he explained.  "When we're here, we can't be sure something isn't happening to the car."  I remember when a bomb went off and none of us was quite ready.

I don't know what to think about the person's question.  Is it cheesy to say you would die for your country?  Or wrong to expect that some of us -- tragically, sadly, but with open eyes -- might?  In some ways I feel it devalues our jobs to suggest that we shouldn't expect that.

On Thursday, they changed our State memorial wall to show the name of the officer who was killed last month.  Today, I went to the office for a bit, then to the Vietnam Memorial across the street.  A troop of school children was filing out of the V-shaped depression, headed toward the Lincoln Memorial.  A church group gathered nearby, singing.  Tourists were milling around.  Maybe because of that officer's work, those people will be more secure.  Maybe they will have a better life.  I hope so.

And maybe because of the work of all the other officers who came before me, I have a better life.  I want to believe that.