Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The State Department and the Leadership Agenda

The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization working to modernize and improve the U.S. national security system to better protect the American people against 21st century dangers. Funded and supported by Congress, foundations and corporations, PNSR is carrying out one of the most comprehensive studies of the U.S. national security system in American history. The project is located within the Center for the Study of the Presidency.

Led by a 24-member Guiding Coalition that includes former senior federal officials with extensive national security experience, PNSR in July 2008 issued its Preliminary Findings report, which identifies numerous problems plaguing the current national security system. Initiated in September 2006, with 13 working groups PNSR prepared 100 case studies of interagency operations since 1947, analyzed 20 major constitutional and legal issues, and rigorously studied the system’s organizational problems, their causes, and their consequences. More than 300 national security experts from think tanks, universities, federal agencies, law firms and corporations are contributing to the PNSR study. the final report will come out in early December.

In its Preliminary Findings (PDF), PNSR has identified fundamental insights that must inform any process of national security reform:

  1. National security reform must be conducted with a deep appreciation for the context within which national security interests are pursued.
  2. Success cannot come from leadership or organization alone. Both are needed and they must be fused into a dynamic, synergistic relationship.
  3. The system must produce a “collaborative government” approach that can draw on capabilities in any part of the government when necessary.
  4. Resources, both human and financial, must match goals and objectives.
  5. The system must focus on shaping requirements for meeting a wide range of present and future challenges, not just on those generated by current campaigns.
  6. Where the system cannot find adequate capacity on which to draw, it must build these capacities.
  7. The national security system must have structures and processes that enable it to deal more effectively with other nations and multilateral organizations.

A couple of its findings were focused on human capital and structure, especially on leadership development and the country team interagency cooperation (will address the latter in a separate post), both with crucial relevance for the State Department.

* * *

FINDING: Leadership and leadership development are critical to improving management and effectively executing agency and interdepartmental goals. The current national security system is hindered by insufficient focus on leadership development and the lack of an organizational culture that promotes entrepreneurial and strategic thinking.

In the military, the need to make decisions and inspire action at all levels of command is institutionally recognized. As a result, leadership is identified as an essential capability. It must be demonstrated in order to achieve promotion, and it is cultivated through education, training, and personnel assignments.

In strong contrast, PNSR has found that civilian agencies and their political and career leaders have not considered leadership a core competency for national security professionals. Rather, civilian agencies involved in national security have traditionally valued specialization and expertise over leadership and management skills, with career advancement usually based on policy or program expertise, individual performance, and tenure (italics mine).

As a consequence, few agencies have criteria to define the essence of good leadership, provide incentives for employees to develop their leadership capabilities, or provide the resources to improve and hone leadership skills. The absence of leadership practice at lower levels also promotes “safe management” and risk-averse decision making(italics mine). At a time when effective leadership is vital at all levels of the national security system, short-changing leadership development assures that the system will continue to falter.

This lack of attention to leadership is even truer at the interagency level than it is at the departmental or agency level. In most civilian agencies, for example, financial and career incentives are attached exclusively to individual performance rather than to team effectiveness.

These problems are exacerbated by today’s political system. Over the last 30 years, presidents have significantly increased the number of political appointees who have penetrated deeper into the system, reducing the number of leadership positions available to career professionals. This trend, which in part reflects the increased partisanship in U.S. politics that spills over into the national security arena, has a number of deleterious impacts:

  • It reinforces the lack of emphasis on leadership development as career professionals are less expected to become policy leaders at higher levels.
  • It complicates retention and fosters higher attrition levels as individuals who aspire to leadership roles see fewer prospects of achieving their goals. Given that political appointees’ time in office tends to be short, it exacerbates the loss of institutional memory.
  • Political appointees tend to focus more on “leaving their mark” than leading or managing.
  • Seeing themselves as implementers of a particular political agenda, many political appointees have little incentive to undertake diverse, critical, or innovative thinking.

* * * Except for the Leadership & Management School at the Foreign Service Institute, the only bureau that I am aware of that pushes the leadership challenge within State, with top executive support is the Consular Bureau. The good thing about it is it gets folks thinking about leadership behavior in the context of their daily work lives. The downside of course is, 1) it is only one bureau among the octopus-like organization with so many arms and 2) the leadership culture cannot thrive unless there is a whole system approach to this change.

The State Department is an old, traditional organization, and it is set on its ways in more ways than one, kind of really like grandpa who likes his coffee at exactly 9 o’clock in the morning among other things. Although it is true that almost all entry level officers do serve in one or two consular assignments and are therefore, captive audience for the Consular Bureau’s leadership initiative, the non-consular coned officers move into different career tracks (such as political, public diplomacy, economic and management) after their first two tours. And while leadership development is embedded into the training of our soldiers, for instance – it is not the same for our diplomatic personnel. Sure you get to do mandatory one week basic, intermediate and advanced leadership type course at the FS 03, 02 and 01 rank, but is that really enough? You won't get to the FS03 rank until maybe your 3rd or 4th tour. By then you will have already served between 4-6 years or even longer.

I supposed that compared to a non-existent leadership initiative prior to Secretary Powell’s tenure at State, the mandatory leadership training is a grand step forward. But - the last time I look, the average time in service between promotions is 7 years (I have not seen the latest promotion stats). And you get to take this course once within that time frame? And that is supposed to change our officers’ worldview about the whole culture of leadership? What about those who are plowing head on with their own leadership development at their own time and dime, does State even give brownie points for those efforts?

I have seen mid-level officers at the roll out of the consular leadership initiative. I remember one in particular who was in a top position and had also been to the mandatory leadership training; and you know what? Neither of this changed this person’s behavior. Sure this person is not a representative for all the good people we have out there. But this one had over a dozen entry level people working in his/her shop. Just as good leadership influences others to mimic those skills, bad leadership also influences subordinates in two glaring ways – 1) to swear never ever to be like the boss when you grow up, and 2) imitation is the best flattery kind of thing. When the boss is a short-termer (as good as the next EER or promotion only), some subordinate officers especially those green between the ears tend to be short-termer as well.

I would argue that the mandatory basic leadership training should start at A100 and at entry levels for all specialist groups and be consistently re-enforced in practice and at every level in the training continuum. Why? Because you want to “brainwash” (in a good way) the new intake at first blush with good leadership principles and instill a positive culture that they can then help build up at State. (I’m sure you want to know from which planet I'm coming from...). This would be something for another post, but I should just add that top leadership must also learn to walk the talk. All that talk about leadership becomes nothing but crappy talk unless the boss is demonstrating the essential leadership behavior that is being taught in the classrooms.

Somebody is bound to tell me that it cost money to train all these people who we’re not even sure will get tenured. Frankly, I've never heard of a single case of non-tenure. No doubt it happens but what is the rate for that? I will grant that money matters must have something to do with this program calculation. But I think it really has more to do with organizational priority.

Ambassador Prudence Bushnell who was once dean of FSI’s Leadership and Management School says that we have made progress in the leadership front but the Foreign Service is:

“[...] still not an organization that values leadership across the board. A boss may demonstrate leadership, or not. He or she may understand what it is, or not. Either way, it’s fine. Clearly, too many people still don’t get it: leadership is not some touchy-feely, people-related thing that’s nice to do if you have time after tending to process and paper. Nor does it mean serving the next person up the ladder exclusively, as if only people at the top can get something accomplished. And it’s not something you delegate to the head of your management team.”

A boss may demonstrate leadership, or not. He or she may understand what it is, or not. Either way, it’s fine. Yes, I do think that is a pretty accurate statement. The bottom line - the boss still gets that promotion, a DCMship or even an ambassadorship even if he/she thinks of leadership as a touchy feely cultural practice from Venus or Mars divorced from the real hard work on Earth. Can you contemplate a Lt. Colonel (equivalent to an FSO2) doing a stretch assignment without stellar leadership skills? Or for that matter, a Brigadier General (equivalent to Counselor in the Senior Foreign Service) without solid leadership experience?

Meanwhile we put some of our best ambassadors who really get it on leadership - out to pasture in some university here, oh there. I heard that Ambassador Eaton, most recently of Panama is currently a "diplomat in residence" in Texas. Another ambassador, one of our tiny crew of Arabic language speakers, could not get an onward ambassadorship because somebody reportedly did not like him, so he'll retire. Welcome to The Office - the elite version.

Related Items:

Leadership at State: A Work in Progress (PDF) Ambassador Prudence Bushnell Foreign Service Journal – November 2005

Promoting Leadership Development: Consular Leadership Tenets (PDF) (State Magazine - May 2007 p.2)

Foreign Affairs Manual (PDF) 13 FAM 300

Project for National Security Reform PNSR Preliminary Findings (PDF) July 2008 - 111 pages


Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

DS said...

Thanks for the link, CAA!