The Foreign Service Journal - January/February 2017
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agency talents and resources toward shared goals, the focus had

to turn outward. Before the bombing, transforming policy into

results meant disciplined use of people’s professional skills, not

their staff assistant abilities.

The bombing showed that our Embassy Nairobi Country

Team was in fact a team, not just another name for senior staff.

We suffered a 50-percent casualty rate in the chancery on Aug.

7, 1998. Forty-six employees died, among them 12 Americans,

and literally no one escaped without wounds, many of them

life-changing. Yet it never occurred to any of us to close down

operations. Most American employees decided to remain at

post following the bombing. Kenyans had no choice but to stay.

The lesson that practicing

leadership means getting over

yourself to focus on others

came as a whack upside the

head a few weeks after the

attack. I was asked to speak at

an unexpected remembrance

ceremony for a beloved col-

league. I was burned out from

funerals, memorial services,

anger and sadness. Physically

and emotionally exhausted, I actually felt a stab of resentment.

Whack: This is not about me!

During the Rwandan genocide, it was all about us. Wash-

ington policymakers acknowledged that we were the “world

leader” in the international arena, but when it came to this

crisis, practicing leadership was the last thing we did. We spent

almost all of our time talking about “us”—i.e., what the U.S.

government could/should/would not do. Instead of harnessing

our brainpower to come up with innovative ways of halting a

genocide absent military boots on the

ground—if such a thing is possible—we

argued. Meanwhile, more than 800,000

children, women and men were massa-

cred. When the U.S. did practice lead-

ership—the Marshall Plan is a good

example—results were transformative.

This was not the case in Rwanda, and

President Bill Clinton later apologized.


The best strategies come from

asking good questions and

listening, especially to dis-


I learned the importance of good

questions while doing evacuations and crisis work in the Africa

Bureau. When we were bombed, I had no idea what people

needed in order to survive at ground zero. I was in the building

next door and then at our crisis control center. The survivors

who turned themselves into first responders were the ones with

the information. My job was to understand their reality and

represent their needs. That part never stopped over the next 10


Leadership is “the process whereby one individual influ-

ences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal,” accord-

ing to Peter Northouse in

Leadership: Theory and Practice


2013). I saw it practiced at every level; and at mine, I needed

to get accurate information

and honest feedback. No one

seemed to have a problem

with that, and as a result, we

avoided important mistakes.

Near the end of my tour

in Kenya, I had to informmy

colleagues that we had lost the

argument with Washington

to create a park on the site of

the bombed embassy. It was

leased property from the Kenyan government and would have

to be returned, I advised.

“You can’t do that!” came a voice from the other side of the

room. “Land grabbers will plant another building on the busy

corner,” he continued. “And there will be nothing to commemo-

rate what happened.”

Everyone in the room knew he was right. We made a plan,

encouraged private means to build and maintain a park, and I

lobbied President Daniel arap Moi’s government to donate the

I could not heal a wounded

community, but I could help

create an environment in

which healing was possible.


A view of the wreckage after the Aug. 7, 1998, terrorist bombing of U.S. Embassy Nairobi that left

hundreds dead and wounded.