03/08/2013 12:22 pm ET Updated May 07, 2013

Prudence Bushnell on being a diplomat

This year's best picture winner "Argo" showcases the service and sacrifice of U.S. diplomats and Foreign Service officers overseas. Tom Fox spoke with former ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala Prudence Bushnell about this important work. Bushnell also served as deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs and dean of leadership and management at the Foreign Service Institute. She is now CEO of Sage Associates, where she works with senior executives to enhance leadership performance. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

What motivated you to follow a career path into the Foreign Service?

Three events converged in 1979. My husband and I were living in Dallas and were looking for new opportunities. Militant students assaulted our embassy in Tehran and took diplomats as hostages. I was raised in the Foreign Service and had graduated from the Tehran American High School and worked at the embassy for a time. Along with news of the hostages, I [later] heard then secretary of state Edmund Muskie on the radio advertising a mid-level entry program for women and minorities interested in the Foreign Service. Suddenly my past was becoming my future.

You served in the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for African affairs as the Rwandan genocide unfolded. Why was it difficult to get people to pay attention to the awful humanitarian circumstances in Rwanda in 1993 and 1994?

Rwanda seared my soul. I don't think there was anyone who was closely associated with the events in Rwanda who didn't come out a changed person. We had an interagency group split about what to do, and we had no leadership at the top. I had very little experience with the Washington policy arena and was unable to get appropriate senior-level attention. If nobody's in charge or cares, then you get policy disasters like Rwanda. In this case, like others, people played policy and bureaucratic games with one another to keep each other busy, so the decisions get kicked down the road. It really takes a lot of work to do nothing in this town sometimes. Leaders need to ask the right questions -- like who's in charge, who's got the lead on this, why are we here and what do we want to accomplish.

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