Communication Failures in the Foreign Service

I harp on a number of points in this blog, especially how important it is to improve your writing.  The goal is to communicate ideas and thoughts clearly and succinctly in your Personal Narrative  and during the oral assessment.  Don’t blather.  Say it, mean it and shut up.

Good, open communication is key to any large organization, be it the State Department or IBM or the European Union.  I found in my career at State that communication breakdowns within a U.S. Embassy overseas cripple not only our efforts to persuade foreign governments but also to run effective, high-morale Embassies.

Scott Gration is the “worst ambassador” at State

Scott Gration, former Ambassador to Kenya

Take the case of Ambassador Scott Gration who recently resigned his post in Nairobi.  The State Inspector General released its assessment August 10 of Gration’s performance in Kenya.  Over and over, the IG highlighted his failings in very un-diplomatic prose:

—  The IG called Gration’s leadership to be “divisive and ineffective.”

— “The Ambassador has lost the respect and confidence of the staff to lead the mission.”

— “The Ambassador’s greatest weakness is his reluctance to accept clear-cut U.S. Government decisions.”

Press reports that followed simplified the findings, branding Gration the “worst ambassador in the State Department.”

An ally of President Obama and a darling of the higher-ups at the National Security Council, Gration ended up scorned and pilloried for many reasons, chief among them was bad communication.  He lied to Washington, he dissed his staff and he refused to meet with important Kenyan officials.  Ironically, Gration grew up on the continent and speaks fluent Swahili.  But just because you know the language doesn’t mean you’re a skilled communicator.

For what it’s worth, Gration never understood or tried to understand the State Department culture.  For two years as Sudan envoy, he was a sole proprietor in a sea of LLCs.  Besides contradicting State policy on Sudan, he botched completely one of State’s most important outreach and communication efforts.   He failed – really, refused – to speak with Congress.  Big mistake.

Finally, Gration has hurt the reputation of political appointee ambassadors in the Foreign Service.  Sure, some of them have been duds, but there have also been many career officers who have failed.   There will always be fools in Front Offices.  Political appointees who follow the lead of Mike Mansfield and Walter Mondale, past ambassadors to Japan, will do far better than those who fight the system and denigrate their officers.  Also, political ambassadors bring much-needed fresh blood into the Department.  So while Gration was destroying the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, two other political appointees on the continent – Alfonso Lenhardt in Tanzania and Don Gips in South Africa – were showing their excellent skills at communication and leadership as well as boosting morale and empowering their staffs.


  1. Maria Meneses says

    As is with any significant organization, there will always be the good and the bad. This is one example of a bad employee. It takes a lot to be a leader. It’s a delicate balance of wisdom, smarts, skill, comportment, communications, the list is long…..and knowing when to use each attribute.

    Good to know. Still in pursuit of a dream to work for the U.S. Department of State.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I am a student who is interested in the career path of becoming a diplomat. Your posts are very informative and they really help me a lot. Thank you for spending your time to write all these and sharing them. I really look forward to read more posts about your magnificent experience and advices.

    • Rachel– Thanks for your comment. I don’t know where you are in the process, but I wish you the best of luck. If you’re still an undergrad, reach out to the State Department via about the possibility of interning at an Embassy overseas. It will be the best opportunity to test drive what it’s like to be a U.S. diplomat. Not many people know that State is so short-staffed these days — thank you, Congress — that interns — at the State Department and overseas — are pressed into real positions. It’ll be a fabulous experience, and one that will decide whether the Foreign Service is right for you!

    • Thanks, Rachel. I’m not sure my Foreign Service career was all that magnificent. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, gaffes, you name it. I am satisfied with my work and enjoyed the opportunities available in the Foreign Service.

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