Four Leadership Lessons to draw from Ambassador Gration’s service in Kenya
The US embassy in Kenya announced on the 23rd of July that Major General Scott Gration, who resigned under acrimonious circumstances, had left the country and public life early in his career as ambassador.
In a highly critical assessment issued by the US State Department Friday (10th August), the details of the motivating factors that led to the envoy’s resignation were laid bare.
The negative parts of the assessment against him range from violating security procedures to lack of interpersonal skills.
This was particularly damaging to a person who had dedicated 35 years of his life to the service of his country and one who it would reasonably be expected contained a wealth of leadership skills under his belt.
In this Editorial piece I am going to pin point, through my own personal assessment, some of the things that made him a leader to admire and others which led to his implosion career-wise.
Mr. Gration, going by his public profile is unarguably a very smart person who made deliberate decisions early in his career that saw him rise through the ranks occupying various positions within the continent to finally clinch his “dream job.”
The US Embassy in Nairobi is among the largest foreign missions America has set up in the continent and is considered to be a strategic part of the country’s foreign policy in Africa. Kenya is considered to be the economic hub of the whole of East Africa and having lived most of his life in the region; Gration not only possessed a great understanding of the region but is also reportedly fluent in Swahili.
Getting to the position of Ambassador in this key American installation is a great feat by any standards and was a position that offered great promise in future appointments. He is also considered to have been among the earliest supporters of President Obama, way before his popularity shot up building up to the 2008 elections.
He reportedly made a deliberate decision to quit the Republican Party and join the Democrats after interacting with Obama back when he visited the continent as a senator and eventually became a close ally of the president after his election.
It is through his decisiveness that he made the vital connections to the White House and got the job as special envoy to Sudan (now split into two) and later appointed Ambassador to Kenya, his exemplary credentials notwithstanding.
Quit while you are ahead
Despite his rapid rise through the ranks in public service Gration, it would be reasonably expected knew that one day his helm at the embassy would come to a natural end either by promotion or demotion.
According to the Washington Post, Gration’s resignation is not the first time a U.S. ambassador has stepped down ahead of a scathing inspector general’s report. Last year, Cynthia Stroum, a venture capitalist and major fundraiser for Obama, left her position as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg way before a similar report purported to contain a less than amusing assessment of her was released.
It is not only noble to step aside when it becomes inevitable to do so but also plain right in every sense imaginable, especially in terms of work ethics. Gration did one better by admitting his failure to continue serving in diplomatic service.
“Differences with Washington regarding my leadership style and certain priorities lead me to believe that it’s now time to leave,” said Gration when he announced his resignation.
Importance of interpersonal skills
Looking at some of the accusations that were leveled against him by embassy staffers in their submissions to the Office of Inspector General, Gration must have gotten it a little wrong in regard to team spirit and presenting himself as a figure of influence.
According to the report, out of the more than 80 chiefs of mission recently assessed, Ambassador Gration ranked last when it came to interpersonal relations and did no better when it came to managerial skills and attention to embassy staff morale.
During his tenure as the special envoy of the US to Sudan, Gration reportedly told the Washington Post, in relation to his strategy towards the erstwhile unitary state, that “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.” This statement earned him criticism from foreign policy experts who termed his statement naïve.
When he came to Nairobi in his immediate former appointment, he was reportedly in constant confrontation with superiors and juniors. He is said to have been unavailable for his juniors to discuss various projects or policies and preferred to work from his private computer and office.
He is said to have established two private offices away from the reach of other staffers. One of them was located in one of the few places in Embassy Nairobi authorized for an unsecured network–a bathroom, according to AllAfrica.
In the words of Mike Myatt in a leadership piece published on Forbes in 2011, Leadership isn’t about you – it’s about those whom you lead and serve. There are few things as limiting and frustrating as disconnected leaders. Smart leaders spend their time starting or advancing conversations, not avoiding or ending them.
Understanding the limitations of power
Positions of leadership in any organizational setting normally come with their attendant power which in essence means that one is supposed to make key decisions and exercise control over all the resources, be it human capital or otherwise.
As per the popular cliché, with power comes responsibility. It would seem that the part of responsibility must have cost Gration his career more than anything else.
According to the audit report, Gration repeatedly violated diplomatic security protocols at the embassy by using unsecured Internet connections despite warnings from his colleagues. He also reportedly insisted on using his personal G- mail account to communicate “sensitive but unclassified” information instead of the diplomatic cables required for this kind of communication.
He is also said to have demanded approval over the actions of US Somalia embassy officials, who work out of the Nairobi embassy and as per protocol answer directly to the undersecretary of Africa.
The lesson here is best exemplified by former American protestant clergyman and abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher, who said “Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength.”