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Leadership: A constructive rebel bucks hierarchy

One leadership style leads a constructive rebel to break rules in diplomacy.

By Jina Moore / November 29, 2011

This article about Dennis Jett – a constructive rebel of diplomacy – is part of The Christian Science Monitor's Nov. 28 cover story project on the leadership style of the maverick. Mr. Jett (c. is shown on a Peruvian drug interdiction boat in 1999 when he was U.S. ambassador to Peru.

Courtesy of Dennis Jett

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The highlights reel of Dennis Jett's foreign-service career would screen like an action film – saving journalists from warlords, calling out power-hungry foreign leaders, pushing peace between rebels and governments, even helping rescue hostages. Such drama is not usually the stuff of diplomacy, but Mr. Jett wasn't your usual diplomat.

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During a 28-year career with the State Department, he walked the fine line between emissary and maverick. Jett eschews the latter word – John McCain's failed presidential bid made the term too narrow, he thinks – but not necessarily the sentiment. "I was trying to say what I thought needed to be said, even though it made some in the State Department uncomfortable," says Jett, now a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University in State College.

Uncomfortable as some may have been, others also recognized Jett was right. Jett is a recipient of the Christian A. Herter Award, given annually to a high-level US State Department employee for an accomplishment rather unorthodox in an institution rooted in obedience and hierarchy: effective dissent.

"It's one of our most significant awards ... because it's given to a senior foreign-service officer [who] basically opposes policy in a constructive manner," says Perri Green, who coordinates the award for the American Foreign Service Association. That person, she says, "has an amazing impact on the policy."

Jett's recognition, for a decision he made as ambassador to Mozambique in 1995, had roots in work he'd done a decade earlier in a neighboring country. In Malawi, in the late 1980s, his cowboy instincts turned into quiet heroics. Kindra Bryan, a young Texan nurse working as a missionary, was kidnapped with five other missionaries by rebels fighting the government of Mozambique. The rebels marched the hostages hundreds of miles across Mozambique and, near the Malawi border, decided to free them. Jett volunteered to meet the captives after they crossed to safety at a remote river crossing on the border.

"I thought I was going to stand there and people would come across, and I would say, 'Hi, how are you. Welcome to Malawi. Now get in my car and we'll go to the capital,' " he remembers.

But the rebels had a different idea. Jett's emissary to the rebels, an American missionary, told him that the rebels wanted to meet him; Jett agreed, saying: "Just tell them to come over."

The emissary dissented: "They can't enter Malawi. You have to cross over into Mozambique."

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