The Diplomatic Approach to Senior Leadership

Posted 12.22.2009

One of the memorable conversations I had when conducting the research for my book, The Next Level, was with Bob Johnson who at the time was a senior vice president for Nextel. Among other good points that he made, Bob said that senior leaders need to think of themselves as ambassadors representing the rest of the leadership team to the entire organization. His point was that the people in the organization who don’t regularly deal with senior leaders will form their impressions of the entire leadership team based on their interaction with that one member of the senior team. 

Kissinger-clinton So, with that conversation in mind, I read with interest an interview in the current issue of Newsweek that Jon Meachem conducted with Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton on their experiences serving as Secretary of State. If you’re a leader or have an interest in foreign policy and how it is shaped and executed, the entire interview is worth your time. I’ve read through it a couple of times now and have concluded that Kissinger and Clinton offer some practical advice for dealing with some of the challenges facing senior leaders in any field. What follows are direct quotes from the two Secretaries organized under headings that reflect typical leadership priorities or challenges I’ve seen in working with senior leader clients.  My hope is that there you’ll pick up some ideas or perspectives that will be applicable to some of the challenges you’ll face in 2010. (My headers are in bold and the Kissinger and Clinton quotes are in italics.)
Building Relationships That Lead to Results –

Clinton:  What I have found hardest to balance is the amount of travel that is expected today. One would think that in an era where communication is instantaneous, you would not have to get on an airplane and go sit in a meeting. But, in fact, it's almost as though people are more desirous of seeing someone in person.

Kissinger: Because they have to have explained to them what is really being thought, which you can't put through cables.

Kissinger: It's very important to establish relationships before you need anything, so that there is a measure of respect in negotiations once they occur or when a crisis develops.

Clinton:  But part of what you can attempt to do when you've developed a relationship is to offer different ways of looking at that national interest, to try to find more common ground. And it's going to be a more likely convergence if the person with whom you're talking feels that they've already developed a personal understanding of you and a personal connection with you. And I've spent, as Henry has, an enormous amount of time just building those relationships. Because it is all about having enough trust between leaders and countries so that misunderstandings don't occur, but also on the margins, there can be a greater appreciation of the other's point of view.

Time Management Triage –

Clinton:  One of the biggest challenges for me personally is to keep trying to present an affirmative agenda, not a reactive one, because you could end up being kind of an inbox secretary of state. You are never off duty. Because you land, you begin to work, and you go the next place and you land and begin to work. When you come back, your inbox is a foot high.

Kissinger: … there are as many constituencies as there are countries with which we have relationships. So at the end of every day you almost have to make a decision—whom are you going to insult by not dealing with his or her problems?   Because there's no possible way you could get through.   It's a job that requires 24-hour attention.  One of the problems of government is to separate the urgent from the important and make sure you're dealing with the important and don't let the urgent drive out the important.

Balancing the Short and Long Term Perspectives –

Kissinger:  With so many constituencies, to get them to work toward a coherent goal is a huge assignment for the secretary.

Clinton:   … you try to keep your eye on the long-term trend lines because what is neither urgent nor important today might become one or the other by next year or the year after. And that's a whole different set of skills that is required. I'm always reaching down into the building and saying, "What are we doing on energy security and independence? What are we doing to work with Europe so that they will come up with a common policy through the EU on their own energy needs? What are we doing on food security?"

Managing Your Message –

Clinton:  … press coverage, with all due respect, often raises fears and anxieties that are not rooted in any decision process. People sit around in capitals all over the world reading tea leaves, trying to make sense of what we're doing. We have to go and meet and talk and listen, and it is a challenge to manage all of the relationships you have to manage when you're on an airplane as much as I am these days. 

Kissinger: When you travel as secretary, one problem you have is that the press comes with you and wants an immediate result because it justifies their trip. And sometimes the best result is that you don't try to get a result but try to get an understanding for the next time you go to them.

Establishing Trust and Effectiveness with Your Boss –

Clinton:   … the tough decisions end up in the Oval Office.   And you can't just walk in and say to the president, "Here's what I think you should do." It takes a lot of thought and effort. I meet with the president one-on-one once a week.   I'm in other meetings with him with the national-security team. It's a constant conversation…  having the trust and confidence of the president means that you can do the travel, check back in, report back in without worrying that you're not on the same page because you've talked at length about where you're headed before you go.