October 22, 2020

U.S. Foreign Policy Agencies Need Senior Officials Who Can Really Lead

Putting them in place is low-cost, non-partisan and common sense

By Kristin M. Lord and Christopher D. Kolenda

Whoever wins the U.S. presidential election in November will face an unenviable collection of foreign policy challenges: an ongoing pandemic, looming global economic recession, growing tensions with China, a stew of conflict and instability in the Middle East, rampant disinformation, a pervasive North Korean nuclear threat, a provocative Russia, and widespread social and political unrest – a list that is far from exhaustive.

One major factor could improve the odds of successfully navigating this complex landscape: the presence of senior officials with proven ability to lead.

This sounds like common sense – because it is. It’s also well understood and practiced by the U.S. military, which excels at cultivating and then supporting its leaders, and by corporate America, which maintains an extensive infrastructure to develop leaders.

Whoever wins the U.S. presidential election in November will face an unenviable collection of foreign policy challenges.

But the civilian agencies responsible for advancing U.S. foreign policy and national security have an unfortunate record of undervaluing leadership experience and giving their political appointees insufficient resources to sharpen their leadership talents. They have a tendency to reward mastery of their briefing book and writing brilliant strategy papers more than their ability to execute. So even the best policy decisions will not translate into success if policy makers lack the skills and support to execute effectively.

The civilian agencies responsible for advancing U.S. foreign policy and national security have an unfortunate record of undervaluing leadership experience and giving their political appointees insufficient resources to sharpen their leadership talents.

Too often, leadership is an afterthought. The result is weak execution, delays or failures of critical initiatives and staff demoralization.

It does not have to be this way. So here’s some advice on how to spot and support the civilian leaders who will navigate our government through these challenging times.

Look for experience. Prioritize candidates with proven track records of leading complex organizations successfully. They do not all need experience in government; though that’s helpful, the government benefits from bringing in people with diverse backgrounds. Research shows clearly that the best predictor of future success is past success, and this should be a prerequisite for anyone leading large teams.

Members of Congress, who will have the responsibility of confirming many of these leaders, also have a role to play. It would send a powerful message if the confirmation process stressed not just nominees’ policy positions and subject matter expertise but also their experience.

Evaluate leadership qualities. Bring on leaders known for trustworthiness, treating people with respect and good stewardship. Unlike other job-related skills that can be trained on the job, it’s hard to teach integrity, decision-making, team building or accountability. Don’t assume people lacking in these traits will suddenly transform when they become senior officials.

Prioritize diversity. Most organizations tend to fall prey to affinity bias, the natural human propensity to select and promote people who look, act and think as we do. Physical diversity – diversity that you can see – shows a commitment to a government that looks like the people it serves and brings to the table people from different genders, sexual orientations, and geographies as well as different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Mental and emotional diversity are critical, too. When big ideas and innovations combine under those who know how to build consensus and implement, success is more likely.

Set expectations early. The first several months after the election is an ideal – yet fleeting – moment to set leadership expectations. Challenges and decisions rack up from the start of a new administration, and there is little time to properly create the support systems, expectations and culture that allow good leaders to grow into their roles and do their best work.

Invest. Leadership development, coaching, and mentoring are essential for government leaders to maximize their chances of success. They are worth the modest level of resources and time they require.

Most organizations tend to fall prey to affinity bias, the natural human propensity to select and promote people who look, act and think as we do.

None of this is easy, and obstacles are inevitable. There is always, for example, a sense of urgency to identify and appoint senior leaders as quickly as possible. Once on the job, time pressures are enormous. Also, inertia and self-interest – the stubborn tendency to cling to the status quo, either because it’s the path of least resistance or because some people benefit from it – means that real will at the highest levels of an organization is essential to bring change.

The vision laid out here is neither expensive nor complicated, but good hiring and subsequent leadership development requires energy and dedicated staff time. We need able senior public servants who will steer our nation through the enormous challenges to U.S. foreign policy. Selecting them not just for what they know but for their ability to lead – and then supporting them through mentorship, coaching, and training – is a high-impact, low-cost and nonpartisan act of common sense.

Dr. Kristin M. Lord is President and CEO of IREX, a global education and development nonprofit. Col (Ret.) Christopher D. Kolenda, Ph.D., is the founder of the Strategic Leaders Academy and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at CNAS.

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