All the Things We Are – Are Not Learnable

The Thinker at the Baltimore Museum of Art by ...Image via Wikipedia

NDS at Calling a Spade a Spade has an excellent post on selecting a cone or career track in the Foreign Service.

The most significant change to the recruitment process in recent times is the requirement that you choose a career track at the time you take the Foreign Service exam. And until I worked a recent recruitment trip, I didn’t realize how big a deal this has become. The problem, of course, is that very few prospective FSOs have any clue about what work in each of those tracks entails.
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My contention is that your choice of career track should depend primarily upon your personality type. Let me explain. In many parts of the world, if you do political or economic reporting, you may write some bang-up cables and does great liaison work. But at the end of the day, you send out your cable, and only God knows whether anyone ever reads it, especially if you work in Carjackistan or Tsunamia.

Read NDS’ Choosing a Cone (or Career Track or Specialty or Whatever They’re Calling It This Week)

I think briefly in the 90’s, the State Department did experiment with taking in entry level officers without preselecting their career tracks. I can’t remember now how long that lasted, or if an in-depth study of its impact was ever conducted. I knew of a couple of folks who wanted to be in the political cone and who were really unhappy when they ended up assigned to the consular and management cones. But I’ve lost track of them so I can’t say if they got out or were able to reconcile themselves to their bureaucratic fates.

I do think that the selection of career tracks ought to be driven by personality type but also strengths. Strengths with its three ingredients as Marcus Buckingham put it: talents (things you’re born with), skills (things you can learn) and knowledge (facts and lessons learned, including self-awareness). But State doesn’t necessarily recruit for specific skills or talents and only test job applicants on general knowledge. Its recruitment drive is to find well-rounded individuals that the organization can mold grow into successful representatives of the government.

But the notion of a well-rounded individual is a myth. The most successful people in the world are not conformist or cookie cutter-images of each other but unique individuals with edges and sharpness uniquely their own… Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Richard Branson.

Of course, in diplomacy, there is Richard Holbrooke, the larger than life character who is currently SRAP to the most turbulent part of the world. He is probably best known for the Dayton Peace Accords, but also widely known for his aggressiveness and short temper. Which made this British Ambassador mused “I have often wondered why precisely we Europeans cannot produce anyone like Holbrooke to lead our diplomatic effort with bravura and amusing confidence, plus ruthless bullying/intimidation.”

As an aside — Holbrooke joined the Foreign Service during the Vietnam War. I doubt if it surprised anyone that he did not stay put in the Foreign Service in order to climb the ladder of career ambassadorship.

In any case, perhaps the reason why Europeans cannot produce anyone like Richard Holbrooke is because there are things inherent in all of us that cannot be “produced.” Things that when absent, we cannot compensate by skilling-up or by training.

I once knew a public diplomacy officer, before it was called that, who was promoted up to become the chief of a branch post. He was a nice guy with a deep technical background but had no feel for connecting with the public and was under skilled in managing his small crew. He did his best – he gained experience, learned his lessons and he went to trainings. But no amount of experience or training could hide the fact that at most, he was a mediocre representative of the United States government in the field.

There is, too, former Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Say what you will about Secretary Powell’s speech to the UN in the lead up to the war in Iraq, but the fact is Colin Powell’s speeches are always delivered in near perfect pitch, always. And the Toast Masters had nothing to do with it. (If you missed his leadership lecture at the State Department, btw, check it out here). The US Army did not start with a blank slate with Colin Luther Powell in 1958. It honed what was already there.

This contrarian believes that all the things we are – are not learnable.


The self-improvement market in the US worth $11.06 Billion in 2008 would disagree. And so would the State Department’s Human Resource Bureau.

This is, of course, contrary to what we’ve been taught most of our lives – that we can be anything we want to be. That we can put in what was left out. And that turning square-peg people into well-rounded ones in perfectly round holes is a real possibility especially in a bureaucracy.

All the things we are – are not learnable. That’s not my excuse, just pragmatism. So thanks, but no thanks. I like my square peg edges.

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