Inspirations in Diplomacy: Mentorship Makes All the Difference

In the Foreign Service, success is impossible without support, guidance and encouragement from mentors and colleagues.


Ambassador Charles Ray spoke to reporters after receiving a Human Rights Defender Award from the Zimbabwe Organization for Youth in Politics in 2011. Photo courtesy of Charles Ray.

No matter how smart, strong, dedicated or talented you might be, you can’t truly be successful without the help and inspiration of others — in diplomacy or any other profession. All we achieve in life we accomplish by standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.

When I began my Foreign Service career in 1982 after 20 years in the U.S. Army, I had many strong shoulders to stand on. The list of people who inspired me during my 30-year career as a diplomat, serving in such positions as deputy chief of mission at our embassy in Sierra Leone during its devastating civil war to the first U.S. consul general in Ho Chi Minh City after the United States established diplomatic relations with a unified Vietnam, is a long one. It includes people who one might not normally associate with the profession of diplomacy.

In fact, the person at the top of that list wasn’t a diplomat it was my grandmother, who has inspired me my entire life. A country woman with only a rudimentary education who taught herself to read with a Bible, she was born not long after the Civil War. As an African-American and female in the American South, she had very few opportunities but took advantage of every single one. She raised me from the time I was about 12, and all that I’m today I owe to her teachings. She taught me self-confidence, integrity, honesty and perseverance, and it’s because of her example that I never let failure or fear of failure keep me from trying. Just 4 feet 10 inches tall and weighing a little more than 95 pounds, Sally Young, or Aunt Sally to all who knew her, was a force of nature, respected by all and feared by many because of the sheer force of her personality.

I joined the Army right out of high school, four days after my 17th birthday, and that was where I came of age. Among those who helped me refine and polish the lessons in leadership I learned from my grandmother was my first mentor, First Sergeant Loren Walkup, a rosy-cheeked Cherokee Indian who taught me the importance of putting the people you lead first. My second mentor was Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Fountain, my boss when I worked at the Army Intelligence Command, who challenged me to get outside my comfort zone and take risks to get jobs done.

When I entered the Foreign Service, I had 20 years of military experience under my belt, including two wartime tours in Vietnam. I had commanded troops and served in high-level staff positions. But I knew nothing about diplomacy and was clueless about the culture of the State Department bureaucracy. The orientation course for new officers, which was nine weeks when I took it, did a good job of introducing some of the administrative trivia, but fell short of preparing me for the culture or for being a diplomat. The practice seemed to me to be that one learned these things on the job.

Get the Diplomatic Diary

Learning diplomacy on the job works only with consistent and deliberate mentorship. Without someone who knows the ropes to mentor and guide you, this is a difficult undertaking. It’s akin to being thrown into a lake and told to learn to swim. Fortunately for me, as had been the case in the Army, there were people on whose shoulders I stood and who inspired me to be the best diplomat I could be. There were many, but a few stand out.

The first was Mary Ryan. I first met her when I was on my second tour as head of the consular section at the newly opened consulate general in Shenyang, China, and she was assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. Shortly after my arrival in Shenyang, a U.S. citizen caused a hotel fire in Harbin, a city 12 hours by train north of Shenyang. Because there was loss of life, the American was criminally charged, and as the sole consular officer in the district, it was my responsibility to provide consular services in what became international news. Ryan took the time, when the rudimentary communications system of northeastern China allowed, to guide me through this sensitive and complex case, beginning a mentorship that lasted until her death in 2006. She taught me the importance of being accessible to subordinates, and a mentor and guide for those junior to me.

My assignment in Shenyang was made possible by another person who inspired me, James Hall, who had been the deputy consul general in Guangzhou, China, during my first overseas tour. When Hall was selected to be our first consul general in Shenyang, he fought the assignment system on my behalf to get me assigned to handle consular affairs at the new post. He taught me the importance of fighting for what you believe in.

Along with Ryan, two more diplomats took me under their wings and made sure I had access to assignments and training that prepared me for senior positions. They were former ambassadors Ruth Davis and the late Edward Perkins, both of whom also served as director general of the Foreign Service and mentored hundreds of officers. They were particularly active in supporting minority and female officers. From them, I learned the importance of diversity in diplomacy and foreign policy, which is often ignored.

As I look back on my 30-year diplomatic career, I can truly say that the success I had was due to those who supported and inspired me. Without their shoulders to stand on, I would have never become an ambassador.