The Lonely Diplomat: an invitation to our bosses
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
These words are written for the bosses of mid-career diplomats: ambassadors and senior-most leaders in our employing agencies.
I know that you're busy. I'm going to keep this short. Please don't confuse brevity for a lack of understanding of the issues facing diplomacy in the modern era. I contend that having diplomats that are connected with who they are and are connected with the world around them make for continued positive diplomatic outcomes.
I have three points:
1. I'm worried about some of the gifted, talented, highly-experienced and committed diplomats that work in your service and in your diplomatic missions. They may be tired. They may be cynical or jaded. They could be lost to themselves and are simply going through the motions of what they feel is expected of them. They are unsure of who they are, because they've spent so long trying to be all things to others and have forgotten or neglected themselves;
2. I invite you to join me in a dialogue about how we could work together to support diplomats - and those accompanying them - who may be struggling mentally and/or emotionally with aspects of this diplomatic life. This is not a démarche or a call to arms, rather an attempt to start a kind and honest discussion about the physical, mental and emotional well-being of diplomats; and
3. I have thought long and hard about how I would write this, knowing that there are likely to be a number of readers who read this and won't engage with it publicly out of fear that they will be branded troublemakers, subversive or weak and not being able to handle the demands of this diplomatic life. A fear is that publicly engaging with my work means no further promotions, postings or further opportunities [If you're that reader: this is perfectly understandable and it's why I'm here].
I write these words because I'm worried. I write these words to you to start a kind and honest conversation about how we can work together to support ourselves and to help those who have become lost to themselves.
Diplomacy is hard work made to look effortless and easy. It is more than a job. It's a life that gives us much but demands much of us in return. Being part of something much larger than any one person never fails to inspire. The opportunity to see, and really be, in the world is a privilege. However, the privilege of serving our country and advancing its interests internationally comes at a personal cost to all who do it.
If this is as far as you have time to read, I understand and thank you for your attention. I hope that we can start a discussion about how we can work together to support those diplomats who may feel lost and unsure behind their masks.
However, if you can spare the time, I ask that you to read further.
In diplomacy, we can be scared to be seen as the people we are. There are a number of reasons for this, including:
- the workplace culture is competitive and we wear masks to cover any uncertainty or character weaknesses that can be perceived as weak and used against us;
- we feel that we need to meet an impossibly high standard of workplace performance and behaviour to keep up with our peers;
While there are no official workplace policy documents that state that we must, for instance, wear masks, the perception is that we must in order to do our jobs and to get ahead. Taking off our masks and being seen for ourselves - imperfections and all - can be terrifying. Fearing that these imperfections can hold us back stops us from being ourselves and leads to disconnection with the self.
No one explicitly says that masks must be worn. Yet, here we are, wearing our masks.
Perception is reality. The fear is real.
Perception and shame
Many of our behaviours are dictated by the question: What will people think?
This fear can have us not wanting to take a risk - any risk - that may not work out. This manifests itself numerous ways, including:
- not wanting to take any risk - or deviate from what's expected - and then failing. When the perception that the focus is always on the result, rather than the effort, anything less than a stunning success or perfection is a failure in our highly-competitive organisational cultures;
- not wanting to offer a statement in a meeting unless we know it to be right or on the chance that it could be perceived in the wrong way; and
- not speaking up on issues that are important to us and our mental and emotional well-being and that of our families, friends and colleagues lest we be seen as not having it all together or being branded a trouble-maker.
This is a bad sign. 'What will people think?' is a question rooted in shame. Shame pervades our workplaces. Shame is a powerful behavioural modifier in humans. It keeps us all quiet. We keep striving for perfection and will not speak or act until feel that we have measured up. We fear the judgement of others should we speak up. We keep quiet and carry on.
We fear that any and every indication of weakness is being tracked and monitored. It takes enormous personal courage to engage in any public way - on social media or in person - with topics that could suggest a hint of not having it all together.
These are not the qualities of a healthy working and living environment. It does not have to be this way.
I'm passionate about what I do and am committed to supporting diplomats as they work to reconnect with themselves and the world around them. I know that you want to provide the best support possible for your employees and those in your diplomatic missions. I feel that we could go further if we go together.
I know that many of your agencies have well-established psychological support services for your employees and their dependents. This is admirable and shows an abiding commitment to your duty of care.
I feel that there is always more that can be done. I am working to provide a space for diplomats to reconnect with themselves and the world around them. I am working to support them through my lived experience and insight as a diplomat and as a diplomatic spouse. I get it. I've been through it.
What's in it for you?
Some in your agencies can only see its flaws. Behind their masks, they may have mentally and emotionally checked out. They could be unhappy but not recognise it or don't know what to do. They may leave or they may stay: either way their skills and experience are lost when they are most needed.
We live in a time when foreign policy - indeed, all public policy - is being written in ways with which our bureaucracies struggle to keep apace.
The established world order is in flux. Tweets at 3am mean urgent meetings to make sense of what it all means and how to respond.
Now, perhaps more than at any other time, the world needs creative and innovative solutions to complex problems. You need people who can combine their skills and experience with an ability and willingness to be creative and innovative.
It is impossible to be creative if we cannot be vulnerable. If we fear failure - even the perception of failure - we'll never try anything new.
As Dr Brené Brown writes in 'Dare to Lead' and says in 'Call to Courage':
If there's no vulnerability, there's no creativity.
If there's no tolerance for failure, there's no innovation.
[If you've not seen 'Call to Courage' on Netflix, I highly recommend it.]
Reconnecting with myself and the world around me lead me to become a happier, more confident and focused person doing an important job.
Helping diplomats to connect with themselves and the world around them is a bold way to get better outcomes that advance your country's interests internationally.
Thank you for reading these words.
I've had the honour of being mentored by many senior people in my career. Each one of them had dared greatly and taken chances at least one moment in their lives to have their role. I'm confident that this applies to you, too. You know how hard it is to be seen. You know how hard it is to be vulnerable and to take risks. You are who you are, in part, because of that.
I welcome an opportunity to start a kind and honest conversation with you about how we can support the people living this diplomatic life.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience and connection.
Sharing my work really helps it reach more people living their diplomatic life so they know that they're not alone in experiencing its highs and lows.
Please send the link to this post to someone who you feel needs to read this article.
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~ Thank you ~
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.