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Lessons in Leadership

Ambassador Prudence Bushnell's slight frame and soft-spoken manner do not readily signal the qualities of fortitude and resolve that lie beneath.

But a leader she is, without a doubt, as was quickly clear to the 1,000 people who listened to her talk at the Excellence in Government Conference in Washington in late July.

Bushnell was ambassador to Kenya on Aug. 7, 1998, the date the American embassy in Nairobi was demolished by a terrorist bomb. One-quarter of the embassy staff was killed and another quarter had to be dug out and medically evacuated. In all, 213 people died. One hundred buildings were partly or completely destroyed and 250 businesses in the environs were lost.

It fell to Bushnell to pick up the pieces. She had too many funerals to attend, too many people to comfort, too much anger to quell among Kenyans who were ruing the decision to permit the embassy to be located in downtown Nairobi. Offices and computers were unusable, and yet she had to reconstitute the embassy as quickly as possible.

From this dire experience, as difficult for the U.S. Foreign Service as the 9/11 attacks were for the rest of us, Bushnell drew three leadership lessons.

First, she said, is the importance of a clear mission all can understand-in this case caring for those in need and restoring American embassy services. Second is the importance of putting the right team in place in key jobs, as she had worked to do long before the attack. Third, she said, it's essential to have a "practiced leader," someone who has had deep enough experience to know how to handle crisis and who is not afraid to delegate, or share power. Having risen through the ranks of government from her start as a secretary, Bushnell had developed these skills over time.

Federal civilian workers who serve abroad are called upon for special fortitude, vulnerable as they are to America's enemies, while not nearly as well protected as U.S. military forces overseas. But many federal workers, at home and abroad, are now in positions of such importance to the nation's security that new levels of initiative and leadership are required.


Tim Clark served as editor in chief, publisher and president of Government Executive in the years since it was acquired by National Journal Group in 1987. He and his colleagues have built Government Executive into an essential source for federal managers, a shaper of the government management debate and a key player in the good-government movement. Clark has spent his journalistic career studying and writing about government, and is a founder of National Journal, Washington’s premier source of political insight. He also founded Empire State Report, a monthly magazine about government in New York. He is a fellow and former board member of the National Academy of Public Administration.

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