Courageous leadership

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Interview by Dennis Nally

Diplomat, educator, foreign policy expert, linguist, accomplished musician—Condoleezza Rice epitomizes achievement. Having broken through gender barriers to serve as President George W. Bush’s national security advisor during his first term, she went on to become the first female African- American US secretary of state, a role in which she defined the term courageous leadership. Now in transition between public and private life, Dr. Rice discusses not only the challenges and opportunities she has faced in the past, but, more important, those she looks forward to encountering in the future.

DN: How is life after the administration? It must be quite a change.

CR: Life after the administration is great. The best part of it is that I can read the newspapers and not think I have to do anything about what’s in them. Eight years was a very long time. And I’m glad to be back in private life. It’s also great to be back in a university. So, life is terrific.

DN: Has life always been terrific, or have there been challenges, particularly growing up?

CR: I came from a little community in which it was all about family, school, faith, and church. And the community, of course, was segregated. If you were African-American, you couldn’t go to a restaurant. You couldn’t go to a movie theater. Parents had to explain to their children why they couldn’t go to a certain amusement park. So this little community engaged in substitution. We had lessons at everything—French and ballet and piano. And we were always encouraged to work hard. It was a community of high standards. And we were encouraged to see limitless opportunities. I don’t know how they did it, but they really made us believe that even though we couldn’t eat at a local lunch counter, we could be president of the United States if we wanted to be. But we got through it because it was a strong community. My parents and others just kept sending the message that you may have to be twice as good. But that’s okay. Be twice as good.

DN: Obviously, you took your parents’ advice, and your drive and talent led to tremendous accomplishments. What, in your opinion, attracts talented people to a job in government, in education, or, for that matter, in business?

CR: First, you want the work to be challenging and meaningful. And you want to feel supported and affirmed for what you do. But even more important, people need to have access to the educational opportunities that lead to rewarding careers.

While the United States is not perfect, it really does try to do good in the world.

DN: Can corporate America help in this regard?

CR: Absolutely. I think, first of all, businesses should strongly advocate for education as a civil right. Innovative educational programs that are supported by corporations are important as well. We’ve also found it very useful when corporate mentors go into the schools.

DN: Education is important, but so is experience. What has your on-the-job experience as a diplomat and an educator taught you that you might not have learned in school?

CR: Well, the first thing is that we’re not all alike. We’re all very different. And that’s what makes the world interesting. Because of those differences, it’s important that you be able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes without taking your shoes off.

DN: Can you explain that a bit more?

CR: Yes. First, diplomacy is a world where interests overlap, sometimes to a great degree, as with our allies, and sometimes not, as with our adversaries. It’s important to know the difference and to be able to work within those different perspectives. Second, it’s simple to get people to do something easy but considerably more difficult to get them to do something hard.

Successful diplomacy often involves the latter. The final thing is personal relationships. They really matter. Without relationships, you cannot ask people to do hard things. I guess I was the most traveled secretary of state in history. I traveled over a million miles. I know the value of sitting across from someone and feeling their body temperature when I talk with them.