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Prudence Bushnell on being a diplomat

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This year’s best picture winner “Argo” showcases the service and sacrifice of U.S. diplomats and Foreign Service officers overseas. Tom Fox spoke with former ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala Prudence Bushnell about this important work. Bushnell also served as deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs and dean of leadership and management at the Foreign Service Institute. She is now CEO of Sage Associates, where she works with senior executives to enhance leadership performance. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

What motivated you to follow a career path into the Foreign Service?

Three events converged in 1979. My husband and I were living in Dallas and were looking for new opportunities. Militant students assaulted our embassy in Tehran and took diplomats as hostages. I was raised in the Foreign Service and had graduated from the Tehran American High School and worked at the embassy for a time. Along with news of the hostages, I [later] heard then secretary of state Edmund Muskie on the radio advertising a mid-level entry program for women and minorities interested in the Foreign Service. Suddenly my past was becoming my future.

You served in the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for African affairs as the Rwandan genocide unfolded. Why was it difficult to get people to pay attention to the awful humanitarian circumstances in Rwanda in 1993 and 1994?

Rwanda seared my soul. I don’t think there was anyone who was closely associated with the events in Rwanda who didn’t come out a changed person. We had an interagency group split about what to do, and we had no leadership at the top. I had very little experience with the Washington policy arena and was unable to get appropriate senior-level attention. If nobody’s in charge or cares, then you get policy disasters like Rwanda. In this case, like others, people played policy and bureaucratic games with one another to keep each other busy, so the decisions get kicked down the road. It really takes a lot of work to do nothing in this town sometimes. Leaders need to ask the right questions — like who’s in charge, who’s got the lead on this, why are we here and what do we want to accomplish.

You were the ambassador to Kenya during the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998. What leadership lessons did you derive from this experience?

In the 10 months following the bombing in Nairobi, I saw the [embassy] community accomplish extraordinary things. I learned that human beings naturally seek community to survive a crisis and find long-term resilience. My job as a leader was to ask the right questions. I listened to the answers about what we would have to do to move forward within hours of the blast, then days, then weeks, and then through the long term. Everybody was focused on the community good and individual responsibility.

What are the challenges and rewards of being a woman in a leadership role?

Holding a position gets you to the table, but it doesn’t get you heard. Alpha males tend to be the same worldwide, and learning how to be heard as a woman is a challenge. Once I was, I found that many alphas who occupy chief-of-state positions around the world will talk to women and say things that they will not say to men. I have spoken to women colleagues — university presidents, conflict negotiators, members of Congress — and we all note that there is a real advantage to being a woman. We have more respectful conversations that end well, as opposed to throwing down the gavel and slamming the door.

Is there a path for women to move up the ranks in government?

The fact remains that government service is the most inviting place for women to work. Women make up 31 percent of the senior ranks in government and only 14 to 16 percent in the private sector. That said, research still shows that women in leadership positions are held to higher standards and receive fewer rewards than men. Both women and men perpetuate the workplace myth that men take charge and women take care. Research shows women leaders in a double bind — if they take charge, they are deemed unlikeable; if they take care, they’re seen as incompetent. You could see that in the way Hillary Clinton was treated during her presidential campaign. It is the leader’s responsibility to confront stereotypes, no matter where the source or direction, for the benefit of the entire team.

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