Monday, May 27, 2013

Leadership

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.

8 comments:

Carlo said...

I've met the most outstanding people in the Foreign Service - which helps balance out meeting some truly execrable people as well. You're lucky to be able to interact with a mentor/colleague like that. If/when you get to a similar position, you'll realize that it's part of the job (for the better people) to give something back to the organization, which means helping along those more junior who have potential and integrity.

Machiavelli said it was best for a Prince to be both loved and feared, which is a smart observation, since anyone with power and authority is going to have enemies who don't love you, so they had better fear you. The bureaucratic world isn't so bloody or survival-oriented, but there's a lesson there as well.

Geraldine Kiser said...

I suspect you are indeed one of those leaders. Being aware of the desire to emulate your mentor's qualities is a part of that.

JOE said...

I know he'd want you to take some time off for a lovely early fall visit to Europe... he told me

Anonymous said...

I also know that he wouldn't want you to travel all the way across the Atlantic for some R&R (and TLC) without taking the ferry over to the Isle of Wight...he told Joe that, too.

Pam

Anonymous said...

Really appreciate this post, it is a great reminder of what we should aspire to be like in the Service. Thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

You are an amazing writer and so eloquent in your quest to define leadership. I will echo what someone else here said - the ability to recognize great leadership probably means that you are well on your way to being there yourself. Well done.

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Sharon said...

I think you should travel north to Potomac. It can be exotic and foreign. We would really love to see you before John heads off to Scotland.