The Foreign Service Journal - January/February 2017
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USAID parlance). They present problems that do not fit neatly

within any sector. Instead, they require the ability to work across

sectoral and agency boundaries in novel and creative ways. Above

all, they require courage: not only bravery in the face of real physi-

cal risks, but the willingness to send bad news up the chain of com-

mand and to constructively dissent when necessary. Since fragile

states abound with policy and program failures and contradictions,

they generate plenty of bad news to report.

For all these reasons, Foreign Service work in these states

requires a certain kind of professional: one who is able and willing

to work independently, deeply commit to a mission, continuously

build new competencies (especially by engaging with different

professionals or by developing new cultural and linguistic skills),

go where the action is, speak truth to power and be credible to all


The Ideal Follower

That person is the exemplary follower. Such individuals and

their teams needmore freedomof action, not less. But the natural

reflex of bureaucracy is to go in the opposite direction. What

tends to happen, especially in the CPCs, is that the U.S. politi-

cal leadership sends more leaders andmore money—but then

requires those employees andmanagers to spendmost of their

time accounting for, well, their time. This was particularly true of

Afghanistan during my tour from 2008 to 2009 there as head of

the Democracy and Governance Office. The organizational chart

became an inverted pyramid as multiple ambassadors and coor-

dinators, along with the Office of the Special Inspector General for

Afghanistan Reconstruction and a constant train of congressional

delegations, all watched over project managers who had little

mobility or authority.

A particularly unfortunate side effect of heavy oversight is that

mere “staff” are discouraged from revealing policies that are not

working or counterparts who are abusive and corrupt. I can attest

frommy work in Latin America that reporting human rights abuses

by security forces is often not welcome. Under these circum-

stances, the exemplary follower may be unfairly viewed as “not a

teamplayer,” when this kind of employee is the one who can actu-

ally build U.S. credibility.

The Foreign Service’s traditional methods of selecting, devel-

oping, promoting and rewarding staff are designed for relatively

stable contexts. One gradually assumes greater responsibilities and

becomes a leader, or at least moves toward that goal. But complex,

unpredictable environments, such as fragile states, challenge

traditional management paradigms. These environments require

quick, creative responses and the sorting out of competing objec-

tives. They demand a higher level of independence, the ability to

collaborate and creativity. Loyalty to the mission becomes more

important thanmere compliance with procedures and directives.

In some cases, as occurred with provincial reconstruction

teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, an employee is attached to a special

unit away from the capital andmust work independently of the

“mother ship.” Even in the embassy or USAIDmission, employees

have to negotiate their way through a tangled web of interagency,

multisectoral andmulti-institutional interests without the benefit

of a proven textbook. A good example of this is rehabilitation of

youth soldiers and gang members, where interventions are legal,

social, psychological and economic. Trial, error, rapid learning and

retrial slowly show the way forward, and competing priorities (e.g.,

supporting a new government vs. protecting human rights) need to

be sorted out in practice. A professional who simply manages up or

follows direction will not provide the type of energy or creativity to

such a complex task.

Restoring the Balance

The Foreign Service already has many exemplary followers, but

they do not receive the same encouragement and opportunities to

excel in that role as leaders receive in theirs. So how should USAID

and other foreign affairs agencies go about restoring balance

between these two sides of the same coin?

Down the road, we should consider establishing a School

of Followership Studies at the Foreign Service Institute, which

already has a very active School of Leadership andManagement.

Even Foreign Service employees who are wholly committed to

becoming organizational leaders could benefit from a few courses

on followership. But that will obviously take significant time and

resources. In the meantime, here are a few suggestions to nurture

the next generation of exemplary followers.

One approach could be for USAID to create self-managed

teams in the field, charged with proposing and implementing new

solutions to a thorny development problem, such as insecurity or

natural disasters.These teams would have the freedom to experi-

ment, make programadjustments and carry out frequent, informal


Exemplary followers, and

their teams, need more

freedom of action, not less.