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Ambassador Charles A. Ray

I’ve talked a lot in this space about leadership and what I believe makes a successful, effective leader. At the end of the day, though, how do you know you’ve been effective as a leader?

I’m reminded as I think about the answer to that question of the last conversation I had with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, just before I went out to be ambassador to Cambodia in 2002. After a formal meeting in which we talked about U.S. policy goals relating to Cambodia, he leaned forward and said, “You can go out there and negotiate treaties; the government there can love you; but if at the end of your tour, the people at the post can’t say they are better for your having been there, you are a failure.”

Those who know Deputy Secretary Armitage will recognize that I have edited that statement somewhat, as he is a rather outspoken person. But, his words have been with me since that conversation.

They represent the essence of true leadership – the focus on creating an environment wherein your followers can excel. Regardless of whatever else you might have heard about what leaders do, that is their most important mission.

As a leader, your job is to create a vision for your people, equip them to achieve that vision, and then get out of the way and let them get on with it. At the end of it all, it’s not the headlines, or even the performance evaluations that mark the success of your leadership – it is the attitudes of those who were entrusted to your care.

I just recently completed a three year assignment at the Department of Defense where I was responsible for the recovery and identification of personnel lost in past wars (all the way back to World War II). In that job, I had direct control over about 160 people, but unofficial leadership of a community of 600. Given the high profile nature and sensitivity of the mission, it got a lot of media coverage and Congressional attention. At the risk of a bit of bragging, I think I did it very well. But, the highest accolade I received from that three years came from one of the junior case analysts my last day on the job. As I walked around the office saying goodbye to everyone, he said, “I’ve worked in this place for over ten years, and I never before gave a lot of thought about the front office or command group. I always thought they were too far above me to have any impact on my day to day activity, but you changed all that. I now know how my work fits into the overall picture and I think I’m a better analyst.” There was more, but the key for me was his belief that I had made a difference in his life. For me, there is not greater achievement than that.

When you take on a leadership role, remember this and you will never go wrong. Let’s talk about this more. You can contact me at this site or at For more of my writing on leadership and other topics, see my blog at

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