Five Lessons in Leadership from a Career Ambassador

Kristie Kenney, a former diplomat who attained the U.S. Foreign Service’s highest rank, spoke at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

Kristie Kenney was the first female ambassador to Thailand and the Phillippines. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
Kristie Kenney was the first female ambassador to Thailand and the Phillippines. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
October 16, 2017

By Ruth Steinhardt

Kristie Kenney served as United States ambassador to Ecuador, the Phillippines and Thailand, and was the first female ambassador to the latter two. In Thailand, where she served from 2011 to 2014, she handled U.S.-Thai relations during crises including the historic floods of 2011 and the 2014 military coup. And she attained the rank of career ambassador, which is the Foreign Service’s highest.

But “you don’t need a title to be a leader,” Ms. Kenney told an audience Wednesday at the George Washington University. “And having a title doesn’t make you a leader.”

Speaking at a lunch and discussion on leadership held by the Elliott School of International Affairs, Ms. Kenney said the lessons of her career apply beyond the diplomatic service.

“Being a leader is making an impact, making a difference, having your voice heard, and you can do that and should want to do that at every part of your life,” Ms. Kenney said. “It’s about making yourself in charge of as much of your life as you can.”

Ms. Kenney offered five broad qualities she said she considers essential to a good leader.

  1. Be competent. “You can’t lead without knowledge,” Ms. Kenney said—knowledge of the organization inside which you need to operate as well as the issues on which you’re working.
  2. Be confident. Ms. Kenney urged her audience to “convey professionalism and confidence” in the way they dress, speak and comport themselves. It took her some time to learn this lesson herself, Ms. Kenney said: Early in her career, as a consular officer at the U.S. embassy in Jamaica, she was mistaken for a summer intern.
  3. Be creative. “In today’s complicated world, we need to come up with new ideas, new solutions.” Ms. Kenney said. Not all of those ideas may be successful, but taking ownership of failed initiatives is also part of a good leader’s experiential portfolio, she said.
  4. Be a good communicator. That includes not just clear speaking and writing, Ms. Kenney said, but also listening. “When you communicate, you’re taking in as well as putting out [information],” she said. And listening includes both the people in a conversation and to the context in which they are trying to connect, Ms. Kenney said. For ambassadors, that means understanding the culture of the region in which they’re working.
  5. Be compassionate. “You need to care about the people around you, above you and below you, the partners you work with, the issues you work on, and there’s really no substitute for that,” Ms. Kenney said. “It will be clear very quickly if you have a leader who doesn’t, who’s interested only in themselves.”

    That doesn’t mean every good leader is “wildly emotive,” Ms. Kenney said. “But you need to have the genuine sense, as you move up in leadership positions, that you care about the people who work for you.”
Politics and Society, Ruth Steinhardt


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