Tips From The Top: One On One With Ambassador Lewis Lucke

I spoke to Lewis Lucke, former U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland and USAID Mission Director in Iraq, Haiti, Jordan, Brazil and Bolivia, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Lewis: I served for ten years with USAID in Latin America in both Costa Rica and Bolivia. The great thing about the Costa Rica assignment is that we closed down our assistance program as we concluded Costa Rica could do just fine without us. I also played saxophone and guitar with a band in both countries—we were the only “gringo” band in both places playing rock and roll and blues.

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?

Lewis: An archaeological dig to Israel when I was teenager and a year abroad program in France through my university got me hooked on the international life, foreign languages and living and experiencing different cultures. I went on to live and work in 12 countries overseas and visit many more in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. I became the Mission Director for USAID in Bolivia, Jordan, Haiti and Iraq, all being large and complex programs. I learned that leadership was about setting priorities, dealing effectively with staff, balancing a lot of balls in the air, effective communication and getting results often in difficult and even dangerous environments.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most impactful in developing your leadership skills?

Lewis: Heading the Iraq reconstruction program at the outset (2002-2004) was a huge $4 billion effort to repair essential Iraqi infrastructure and a thousand other things and was a massive challenge. Though you rarely heard about our hundreds of successes and especially with the participation of hard working Iraqis, we were proud of what we collectively accomplished. The 2010 Haiti earthquake response was another big challenge we contributed to with full civilian and military assets, and with many international partner nations and organizations while working as best we could with our Haitian hosts who were also victims of that tragic event. 

Adam: What were the highlights from your time as U.S. Ambassador? Why Swalizand?

Lewis: I was nominated as Ambassador to Swaziland (now Eswatini) because that’s what they offered me. Swaziland had the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world and I think they felt my background with USAID was appropriate to devising a sound strategy to the AIDS crisis as our funding increased. Eswatini was not the diplomatic capital of the world but the AIDS crisis made it an appropriate and important place to work. I think that we, with a lot of help, brought a more strategic focus to tackling the many facets of putting a more effective HIV/AIDS program in place that would over time show positive results. 

Adam: What is something that would surprise people about the life of a U.S. Ambassador?

Lewis: As they say, “It’s a good gig, if you can get it”. It was an honor to serve as a US Ambassador and every day was varied, different and usually rewarding.  I got along well with the King from the outset — I demonstrated the four SiSwati language clicks for him after my credentialing ceremony — and that cracked him up and his entourage went into gales of laughter. I always had great access to him and I think that moment was one of the reasons. 

Adam: Who are the best leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?

Lewis: I worked for and with many heads of USAID and in my view the best was my boss when I was in Iraq, Andrew Natsios. Andrew was profoundly knowledgeable about many aspects of economic development and disaster response and I learned much from him. I was also fortunate to work around George HW Bush on several occasions over my career, including at King Hussein’s funeral in Jordan where I practically never left his side. To me, Bush 41 embodied leadership, integrity, humility and class.  

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?   

Lewis: Surround yourself with good people, work hard to achieve results, delegate responsibility and praise staff for work well done. Develop and use a sense of humor. Learn from other successful leaders who came before you. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Lewis: Associate yourself with people of honesty and integrity whose skills and capabilities expand and complement your own. Learn to focus on results and be creative and resourceful in achieving your goals. If you don’t know how to do something, have partners or associates close by who can advise you. 

Adam: What do you believe are the three most important issues facing the country and the world? Are you optimistic about our ability to address them?

Lewis: Incivility, intolerance and hatred too often define us these days and this has to change to keep us from going nuts and wasting our precious time and lives. After all my years abroad, Americans should realize that by being born comfortable and in the US, you have already won the lottery of life. So act like it, be appreciative, thank God if you’re so inclined and treat each other with a little respect. I am a natural optimist but the hatred and intolerance has to go.

Adam: What are three things Americans should understand about the Middle East and Africa respectively?

Lewis: 1) It’s not all dark and bloody out there—many good people are working for peace, justice and to make an honest living. There are lots of exceptions. 2) Some of the Middle East’s oldest communities are living under constant threat of extermination in their ancient lands—Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and others are at terrible risk. I have seen these people up close and personal and they have suffered and often died because of their beliefs. 3) In the Middle East, effective leadership means strong leadership. Ideally we want the US to be that strong leader. The weak are seen for what they are and are not effective.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Lewis: Life is short; always do the best you can. 

Adam: ​What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Lewis: Always honor and respect women. They are usually your superior…

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