Remarks to Phi Beta Kappa from Ambassador Mimi Hughes



May 12, 2018

Miriam K. Hughes

U.S. Ambassador, Ret.

President Nina Kuo; Ms. Kathryn ‘Kat’ Sullivan, High School Awards Chair; other distinguished members of Phi Beta Kappa and the DC Area Association; our three fantastic scholarship honorees — Laura Espinoza, Sheyda Tribble, and Sherry Xie; proud families and friends:

It is an honor to be with you at a pivotal moment in three exceptionally promising lives. In some ways, we refer to the entire world as ‘pivoting’ these days, as global transactions swirl and interconnect at awesome speeds. Our honorees are launching themselves at a time when we face more complexity and more rapid change than ever before.

In the midst of so much change, you will face ups, downs, bumps along the road, and so many choices that your journey can be bewildering. Particularly at such times, how do you get your bearings? How will you navigate your own way in the midst of so many choices and proliferating situations of personal responsibility?

In my remarks today, I will try to shed some light on the question of how to steer your own unique path. I will draw on some examples from my experiences in the Foreign Service and I will also refer to the Phi Beta Kappa as a vital institution that for over 200 years of history has kept the faith with its guiding purpose.

Even before the U.S. had become a nation, Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776. The first chapter was created at the college of William and Mary when Virginia was still a colony. Phi Beta Kappa was launched with a clear and fundamental mission: to promote the love of academic learning. After we became a nation, Phi Beta Kappa expanded its chapters to a few universities in the northeast.

From these modest beginnings, this organization established its bearings. Phi Beta Kappa did not grasp for a spotlight. It did not try to be all things to all people. Rather it remained true to the integrity of its original purpose: to uphold the value of academic excellence and the best possible liberal arts education.

So how will you determine your mission? As an evolving human being, you may find that your objectives change over time. But the question remains, particularly when you are at a crossroads: What will guide you? At such time, we all need a kind of compass.

Today you are at a crossroads. In this case it is a moment of elation and honor. Always recognize the junctures. They provide a good opportunity to pause and take stock of yourself. From time to time you may need to reassess your vital interests, returning to consider your core purpose. Take stock of who you are. How have you arrived at this point? Who helped you get there? And what values, inherent gifts and inclinations will continue to constitute your core identity?

Do not try to be someone who you are not. Ask yourself: Who am I? And, what do I do now?

In the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State, we have an opportunity to take stock every time we change posts of assignment. We move continuously to staff some 270 embassies and consulates abroad as well as a variety of foreign affairs positions in Washington. It is imperative to consider our situation when making decisions about where to serve next.

Not everyone can go to Rome, Sydney or London, nor would such a track be advisable. Every time Foreign Service personnel submit bids on a variety of onward assignments they have an opportunity to slow down, reflect and consider such issues as: What values are most important to me at this time? Is it time to regain health and balance after a demanding tour of duty in South Sudan? What about the needs of family members, who may need a stateside job or an American-based high school at this time in their lives? Or coming out of Buenos Aires, do I next need to venture further outside my comfort zone in order to make a push for promotion? In that case, a post in Iraq might be favorable.

Examine yourself and your most compelling interests. Check your compass. Define your priorities in a way that nobody else can.

And in the process of examining yourself and your options, remember to look in more than one direction. In making your calculus, remember it’s not all about you. Look up: there are higher authorities and larger missions. Don’t overlook the people who are above you because if you become exclusively concerned with yourself, you may fail to take others into consideration and you will miss the ticket. Others are a vital part of your equation.

A person to whom I particularly looked up to and who raised consciousness was former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He said: “A good leader is a good follower.” This statement surprised me. I thought leadership was all about setting my own goals, charging ahead, and telling others what to do. Whoops! General Powell revealed that I had a blind spot. Success is not just about becoming a lone superstar. It involves many other people.

Consider those to whom you report: your professors, your boss, and your parents. Your success will depend substantially upon how well you serve others in a chain of command.

Only later in my career did I seriously consider the roots and the higher mission of the U.S. Department of State. State was the first executive department of the U.S. Government, created in 1789. The first Secretary of State was Thomas Jefferson. We serve the executive branch. This is at the heart of our mission: to serve the executive branch, the Presidency, through the Secretary of State, implementing the President’s foreign policies and priorities overseas. While we have much freedom in the way we do this, we are not lone operators or independent activists. There is a larger program that we are entrusted to support, including additional accountability to the Congress and judicial branch. I am proud to have served every President from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama.

Now who are you serving? In college consider your professors. Be aware that they have their own mandates, objectives and expectations of their students. There are things they want from you. Consider: How can I best learn from her or him? And: what does this assignment require? Take the time to study the prompts. Because if you write a brilliant essay but it fails to fulfill the professor’s instructions, you will fall short.

In the workplace ask yourself, what job are we trying to achieve here? Your boss must be able to depend upon you. Try to understand his or her goals and align your priorities. Ask if you do not understand. Sometimes to do a job well you may need to expand your base of knowledge or stretch your boundaries. Do it! In this way by taking calculated risks, you grow and earn trust.

In the Foreign Service, we constantly define objectives. However, much space is left for individuals to figure out the execution. A good ambassador must think constantly about the best ways to approach and advance America’s interests. A White House visit to a foreign country, for example, is both a major opportunity and a time-consuming, logistical challenge.

When our embassy in Bangkok learned on short notice that Nancy Reagan would make a detour from President Reagan’s trip to The Philippines to do her own official visit to Thailand, we all knew we would have to hustle. My long anticipated vacation to Malaysia was cancelled. The ambassador tasked me with ensuring the best possible accommodation for the First Lady.

After consulting with Mrs. Reagan’s staff and our political experts in the embassy, I called upon royal officials in the King’s palace. Eventually we secured rooms for Mrs. Reagan and her staff in the inner sanctum of the hallowed palace. Consultations on protocol, room assignments and security seemed interminable; hours were long. Details were important and daunting. Tensions ran high and nobody held my hand. I had to figure it out.

Was all this effort worthwhile? Certainly there was much sacrifice on the part of everyone who worked on this brief visit. I lost my prepaid vacation. However, I made my boss proud. Inside the palace, the First Lady stepped forward to thank me personally. Her visit received favorable press coverage. Her remarks on the dangers of drug trafficking and addiction were well received in a country that had begun to focus on its own heroin problem. And at the highest level of perception, I felt proud to have played a small part in an effort to bring my nation into a closer relationship of trust and cooperation with Thailand, which was a core objective.

Do not lose sight of the higher objectives. Check your compass. Remember that it’s multi-directional. Do not forget to also look down.

All along the way, you will encounter others who look up to you. Don’t forget them. Make sure you acknowledge them. They may be younger family members, lower classmen at college, or in the workplace, your subordinates.

Look at Phi Beta Kappa and how this oldest academic organization continues to bring others along. Please do that for others in your life. Give others a chance to succeed. Communicate a vision that uplifts them. Celebrate other people’s accomplishments. Go out of your way not only to avoid bias but to actively practice inclusion.

Federal service affords a wonderful career. The workplace is diverse and it demands teamwork. You must collaborate with people who may be significantly different. Treat everyone with fairness, respect and a helping hand. You will need them.

Most of our U.S. missions abroad depend upon the work of local staff. We employ some 45,000 locally engaged nationals, who represent the largest personnel contingent in the State Department. They are over half of our employees. The success of our missions depends upon their dedication and excellence.

In our Mexico City consular section, for example, we employ more than 70 Mexican employees. There is no way we could process 2,000 visas a day without them. Their expertise and cooperation are vital. When I served in Mexico City I constantly looked for ways to give our Mexican employees additional training, update their roles and recognize their excellence.

Check your compass. There is one more dimension that I would like to bring to your attention. You might call it lateral awareness. Look all around you.

Starting from your own unique core, reach out and keep a variety of relationships going constructively. Value the people all around you. We are constantly giving and receiving. It is in your interest to perceive the utility and spark in everyone.

There were times at the UN when we received support from unexpected quarters. Adversaries can become friends. In negotiations in the General Assembly on a resolution concerning a global approach to immigration, the Russians proved to be excellent negotiating partners who shared information and skillful tactics. I valued their partnership.

Honor too those who emerge from various quarters to become mentors. They are vital. Remember them always, touching base and showing them over the long term what they mean to you.

At the same time, anticipate adversity and consider how to confront it. How do you handle others’ hostility, jealousy and resentment? Try not to burn bridges, for such people often come back into your life again. Hold your ground but do not attack. Try to keep a dispute impersonal. At the UN, I inadvertently alienated some rival member nations owing to my lack of awareness about the dynamics of power politics in an intricate multilateral setting. While some hostilities could be walked back by modifying approaches and language, certain enemies remained intractable. I had to remind myself to step back and uphold my primary focus of representing my government. Check that compass to minimize damage. With mindfulness and an open mind, you can change adversity into an asset.

In conclusion, make it a practice to repeatedly clarify your own mission and best interests.

The founders of Phi Beta Kappa did that back in 1776. Their mission was clearly conceived and stated. They pledged to promote knowledge, the love of learning, and the manifold opportunities that derive from a liberal arts education.

These values remain valid. Even as its activities have changed, the organization itself has remained true to its founding principles. 286 chapters are active today. The Washington, D.C. Area Association was established by Phi Beta Kappa alumni in 1913. The dynamic legacy of this association has enabled us to gather today.

What will be your legacy?

Amidst the joy and excitement of the honors today, take a moment to reflect and look around. Let no one else dictate your interests. Remember to: reflect honestly on your choices; define and redefine your identity and purpose; construct positive relationships in all directions – up, down and all around you; and bear in mind that at a pivotal moment, you may not know exactly what lies ahead.

But look, you’ve got a Phi Beta Kappa scholarship and you’ve got a compass. So I’d say you’re off to an amazing start!

Warm congratulations.