U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, J. Scott Gration, announced his resignation on Friday, citing ‘leadership style’ as one of the differences. (MIGUEL JUAREZ/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Isn’t diplomatic leadership style just a nice way of saying foreign policy?

That’s the question I’ve been thinking about after U.S. Ambassador to Kenya J. Scott Gration announced Friday that he had resigned from his post and cited leadership style as one of the reasons. The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan reports that Gration said in an emailed statement that “differences with Washington regarding my leadership style and certain priorities lead me to believe that it's now time to leave.”

Such a statement is pretty unusual. It’s not often you hear “leadership style” discussed when it comes to the departure of high officials—more often than not, they’re retiring, leaving to spend more time with their families, or have strategic differences over how an organization should be run.

While details weren’t provided about the differences in this instance (and there could always be more to the story of why he’s stepping down), Gration’s “soft-handed” leadership style has ruffled feathers before. As the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Gration at the time called his approach to dealing with the Khartoum government pragmatic while his critics called him naïve. “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies,” Gration told the Post in 2009. “Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.”

And yet the Associated Press is reporting that some officials within the State Department (though the sources asked to remain anonymous) took issue with a very different leadership portrait of Gration, which they describe as his “‘my way or the highway’ military leadership style” toward embassy staff. They also say a forthcoming internal audit, due out in the next month, “will be highly critical of Gration's leadership and management of the embassy.”

The resignation raises a number of interesting leadership questions. In diplomatic leadership, how often is playing the role of appeaser the right one? What’s the right time to use carrots and the right time to deploy sticks? Where is the line between preventing the alienation that comes with harsh diplomacy and empowering questionable regimes? And how much should a leadership style waver depending on whether you’re managing internal or external relationships?

I’d also love to hear your thoughts on my initial question: When it comes to foreign affairs, is there really much difference between leadership style and diplomatic policy in the end?

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