Leadership | The formula to become a rock star leader = people focused + values-driven



This piece is part of a series on Leadership by members of WCAPS — Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security & Conflict Transformation — and other members of the broader ISD community.

“The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas, the role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” — Simon Sinek

As a Foreign Service Officer, I have the privilege to observe many different forms and types of leadership from around the world as a U.S. diplomat. I see leadership styles that work and ones that don’t. I see good examples of leadership and bad examples, and from all of them, I learn what real leadership looks like and what effective leadership really means.

From all of these observations, I’ve learned that there is no blueprint for leadership and that becoming a good leader is a step-by-step process. As someone who doesn’t fit the “classic” mold of a Foreign Service Officer, the perspectives, experiences, and points of view I bring also differ from the traditional as well. That said, the things that I value in a leader may deviate slightly from the traditional conception of leadership in the foreign policy and international affairs space.

The baseline for the archetypical leader is someone professionally competent and capable in their work responsibilities, who adheres to an ethical code, and acts with integrity. In my book, this is only the mandatory minimum.


What truly matters in a leader is not so much about what they can do, but rather how they make others feel, especially those who they lead. As basic as it sounds, a leader needs to be a decent human being, someone who doesn’t prioritize “the work” over the people who do the work. A leader should invest real-time in their people, showing genuine concern for their well-being, and someone who delves, within the bounds of appropriateness, beyond mere surface-level pleasantries.

As someone who believes in the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” I am a strong proponent of leaders returning to the trenches on occasion. For example, actively mentoring entry and mid-level employees, or, if bandwidth is an issue, hosting a monthly brown bag discussion series on topics elicited from the participants in advance; or offering university-style “office hours”, where members of the team can drop by and have an opportunity on a regular basis for individual consultations and conversation with the boss, are just a few possibilities. In doing this proactively, leaders can maintain the critical connection with those at the working level, understanding the hardships they face in executing what the leader demands of them, and limiting the daylight between the C-suite and lower levels.

In the time of increased, and necessary, emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), leaders need to make a conscious effort to inspire — inspire by their example and most importantly inspire by their actions. In other words, a leader needs to “walk the walk”, there is no room for only “talking the talk” anymore.

To be a leader that embodies the importance of DE&I means that DE&I needs to be a core value and at the heart of every action one takes. A values-driven leader prioritizes relationships and understands the people on the other side of the relationship. This means asking questions, getting involved with DE&I efforts, and acknowledging that the “way things have always been done” isn’t necessarily the way they should be done, or even the best way to do things.

A values-driven leader listens more than they speak because they value and actively seek alternate perspectives and experiences. Of course, decision-making authority and organizational agenda/goal-setting rest with the leader, but a values-driven leader takes the time to consider and understand different points of view so that whatever decision they take or agenda they set, has the benefit of input from the broadest set of perspectives. For example, when the push came for the establishment of Diversity and Inclusion councils across the interagency to effect institutional change on this important issue, the best leaders met with a broad set of their employees at all levels to assist in determining what the best direction of the council should be for their respective employee community.

If there is no trust in a relationship, then the relationship won’t work. In no case, outside of marriage, is this truer than in the leader-follower relationship. Good leaders trust their teams and, in turn, teams trust their leaders. A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted that an employee who feels the trust and confidence of their higher-ups, shines brighter, delivers better quality work, is more productive, and is more likely to remain in the same workplace for longer periods of time.

In the Foreign Service, an unspoken rule when looking for assignments is, “you don’t bid the job, you bid the boss (leader).” Many Foreign Service Officers I know are looking to hitch their wagons to a leader who inspires them and a leader who sees and appreciates them and their work. Unfortunately, leaders of this ilk in the Foreign Service and the broader foreign affairs community are a rare find, which is why it is incumbent upon all of us to begin grooming leaders and providing opportunities to lead at all levels over the course of a career. By prioritizing leadership training and offering expanded leadership opportunities across the career spectrum, it is more likely that when junior-level employees reach the senior levels, they are primed to be that “Rock Star” leader that others seek to follow and emulate.

Admittedly, leadership isn’t easy and not everyone who is in leadership should be there. The bottom line is that leadership isn’t about the leader. “Real” leadership is about empowering the people around you — ALL the people around you — as a result of your presence. Ultimately, your example and impact, even when you aren’t there in person, enable you to pay it forward, and create more leaders as a result.

Lia Miller, a career Foreign Service Officer, joined the U.S. Department of State in 2003. She is currently the Chief of the Public Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy Yerevan.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government or the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.