This interview originally was published in the June 2013 issue of Convene.
Condoleezza Rice, who spent her early childhood in Birmingham, Ala., in the heart of the segregated South, is her own best example of what she calls “the essence of America.” What really “unites us,” she has written, “is not ethnicity, or nationality, or religion. It is an idea — and what an idea it is: that you can come from humble circumstances and do great things.”
Not only has Rice done great things, she has chalked up a number of firsts throughout her public and private life. In 1993, Rice, who has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Denver, became the first woman and the first African American to be named provost of Stanford University, a post she held for six years. During that time, she also served as the university’s chief budget and academic officer.
In 2001, Rice was appointed U.S. National Security Advisor by President George W. Bush — the first woman to hold the post. She went on to become the first black woman — and only the second woman — to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, from 2004 until 2009. In both those roles, Rice pioneered a policy she called “transformational diplomacy,” which advocated for the formation of new global governments based on democratic principles.
In August 2012, Rice became a groundbreaker on another course, literally, when she and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore became the first women to join Augusta National Golf Club, one of the world’s most prestigious clubs.
The author of two New York Times bestsellers — Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family and No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington — Rice has proven to be a significant leader during a time of unprecedented and tumultuous world affairs. She has been recognized for her efforts to foster worldwide freedoms for all people. Her love of America and her faith in its core values are the foundation of her presentations regarding foreign policy, education, and the empowerment of women.
Since 2010, Rice has served as a faculty member at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and director of its Global Center for Business and the Economy. She drew from her rich and varied career in a recent phone interview with Convene.
You excel musically, academically, and athletically, and are the author of two New York Times bestsellers. What was it about your childhood and your background that resulted in your many accomplishments?
I was fortunate in that I had extraordinary parents. [I] wrote a book about them. My mother was a teacher and my father was a high-school guidance counselor. They absolutely believed that I could do anything. They provided every opportunity to me that they could afford — and some that they couldn’t afford. In [our] little town of segregated Alabama, they made it clear that your fate is in your own hands — that you had to work twice as hard. And as a matter of fact, I did not feel any boundaries. I believed that my horizons had no limits.
I was in a bookstore this morning and saw the biography that you wrote especially for young people. The salesperson told me that it is hard to keep copies on the shelves. What is your message for today’s young people?
Find something you love doing. That is the most important thing. And work really hard. My parents always said that I had to be twice as good. Part of that was because we were minorities living in Birmingham, but also that message can refer to anyone who wants to achieve. If you love what you are doing, working hard is not a chore but a joy.
When commenting on your future during the last presidential election, you said, “I’ll go back and be a happy Stanford faculty member, and, obviously, I’ll do what I can to help this ticket. But my life is in Palo Alto. My future is with my students at Stanford and in public service on issues that I care about, like education reform.” What specifically would you like to see in education reform?
I did a report on the New York [City] school system and outlined three musts — high expectations of students, excellent teachers, and high standards. I am not a supporter of the self-esteem movement where everyone always wins. Confirmation and acclaim come from having actually achieved something. Finally, I am an advocate of school choice, because poor parents also care about their kids and often don’t have choices that others have. Trying to increase the choices of parents is very important.
I believe in abroad education. Math, science, and reading are important, but extremely critical also are other subjects that will round out the total person. We need to support all of these things as part of educational reform.
How do you learn best? When you need to acquire new knowledge, how do you approach it?
I am an academic, so my first instinct is to research a topic. It is a lot easier now with all the available electronic search tools. I try to keep a baseline of knowledge about issues that I am interested in. For example, I read broadly about energy and economic policy. When I try to understand something specific, I delve into it by reading several good articles for starters.
I am an oral learner and have always been as much an oral learner as a reader. That is unusual for academics. I like to go to a lecture and have people come and talk to me. When I was secretary, I would ask, for example, to have the officer from the Vietnam desk talk to me about what is going on in Vietnam.
Clearly, social media and the ability to connect with others electronically grow daily. Are you engaged in social media?
I am on Facebook and Twitter. I tweet about important events and share information on Face-book so my followers know what I am doing with my life. I also try to have fun with social media.
One of the interesting things happening at universities is the explosion of online learning. Do you think this method is as valuable as face-to-face?
Surely, there is some information that can be imparted online — basic information can be presented online, but face-to-face experiences are absolutely essential. There is no doubt about that. We are social beings, and engagement with others is so critical.
Recent legislative and regulatory initiatives have been aimed at limiting government employee participation in private sector and association conferences. Some propose a radically restricted opportunity. How do you feel about this?
You know how conferences work better than I. It is about learning, about the time [spent] over coffee and meals, and the informal chats in the hallway [that] are so valuable. You get an idea and there is someone right there whom you can talk to about it. This creates great excitement, engagement, and energy.
We had three departments at Stanford that wanted very much to work together. We put them in the same space with no separation, in an open format. The interaction was terrific, and the ideas that resulted were over the top.
Face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced with anything else. Regarding the government, I think they believe they are being financially accountable by cutting back on employees attending meetings. But in reality they are being penny wise and pound foolish. Washington is far too insular. Government employees must get out and explore ideas with others if they are to be successful.
You have attended hundreds of all kinds of conferences and see great learning models at Stanford. What suggestions do you have for professionals who plan meetings about how to design their conferences to maximize learning?
There are two methods that I want to point out. One is simulation. I use it in my classes all the time and find it an excellent way to teach. Placing people into situations and actually making them play the situations out is a very good way to learn. Second, smaller group interaction on the heels of larger group interaction — and also on the heels of technological interaction — is important.
As a director of Stanford’s Center for Global Business and the Economy, what are the major things you hope to accomplish?
The main thing is to make sure that students and alumni realize that “global” is not a subject. It is a state of mind. When I talk to an organization, they say they didn’t really intend to go internationally but boundaries have greatly broken down.
We tend to teach and look at things in silos. We have to make sure to encourage learners to be sufficiently global. Many Stanford MBA students are from other countries, and that is a very good thing. I can teach about India or Pakistan, but to hear from others who live in these countries is an entirely different experience.
This does point out the need for organizations to invite attendees from other countries to participate in their meetings. You indicate that global consciousness is a requirement for a 21st-century leader. How do you develop that competency? How do you teach global consciousness?
By understanding what is going on in the world. We tend to develop caricatures of people from different locations around the world. China, for instance, is a terribly important country — big and complex. Yet we tend to characterize China only as a rising power economically without understanding the complexities of the culture and that we are not all alike but so different.
Encouraging people to acknowledge that and to want to know about other places and people is really very important. There are many world-affairs meetings focusing on international issues held all over the country that are open to the general public. I wish that more people would attend to broaden their thinking and knowledge.
There continues to be conversation about whether leadership is innate or learned. Is leadership something that can be taught at conferences or in school — and if so, how is it best done?
I tend to think that leaders emerge based on certain circumstances but also that something is innate there. Great leaders have a combination of innate instincts and taking advantage of being present during extraordinary times.
It is inexplicable how Nelson Mandela sitting in a jail cell could imagine a multiracial South Africa rather than one [in which] the dark population got power and oppressed the whites. Somehow his ability had to be innate. I think that great leaders are developed by a combination of having the right instincts and circumstances coming together at extraordinary times.
Let’s move on to women’s empowerment, as you are known to be a champion for women’s full participation in society. How do you go about encouraging women (and men also) to achieve their highest potential? If you read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, could you also comment on her viewpoints?
Women need to work hard at taking advantage of opportunities. I do like Sheryl’s idea that at some point you really have to lean in and go for it. If you don’t, you aren’t taking control of your circumstances and rather being a victim by saying that this person or that is doing this to me.
It is still difficult, as sometimes the cultural cues are not clear about women and their roles. However, if you keep thinking that others are mistreating you because you are a woman, it is probably your fault and not theirs. Women need to take responsibility for their own situations and empowerment.
What would you say are the major reasons that women are not well represented in the C-suite of Fortune 500 companies?
Their representation is growing. Women started by being more heavily represented as operations officers about 10 years ago, which was a good predicator of movement to CEO positions today. So, we really need to look at and further develop the pipeline.
People say, well, we never had a woman president. People are elected president from two categories of people — senators and governors. So, when you start to see a greater number of women senators and governors, you start to see a pool for presidential opportunities. And so, I am not surprised that the number is relatively low — but women’s opportunities are growing and will continue to increase. I’m very optimistic.
In 1999, I recall being in the audience at the Kennedy Center when you were on a panel to select theTime magazine person of the 20th century. I don’t recall any women even being considered.
Remember that women only got the vote in this country in the early 20th century. It then took another 50-plus years to develop women leaders nationally and internationally. So when we get to choosing the person of the 21st century, we will see women included.
Technology has hastened history by increasing the speed of change that leads to many transformations. Is the speed at which our world operates today a positive situation? What cautions would you offer?
Technology is definitely accelerating change. On the whole, I think it’s positive. Social media is democratizing information in positive ways. A couple of cautions: In terms of politics, our institutions are made to work slowly. For example, a question is asked about what Congress will do on a specific issue. As soon as someone commits their opinion and then changes their mind, they are accused of flip-flopping. Because of the speed of technology and the media, having time to think isn’t there.
Secondly, technology is permitting us to go into our corners ideologically. When I was growing up, everyone had basically the same newsfeed. Now technology is allowing us to gain exposure to very select slices of issues, so we all know different pieces.
Thirdly, there is no fact-checking on the Internet. Many things posted turn out to be not true. I have experienced many times being introduced and the facts are totally wrong — such as a list of the languages that I speak. Yes, I do speak Russian and French, but not Spanish. Recently I was introduced as a person who speaks Spanish, which is factually incorrect. Where did this misinformation come from? This kind of thing happens often and in much more serious ways.
What advice would you give to those who are leaders of nonprofit organizations and are challenged with a critical mission — having a great deal to accomplish with limited resources?
You have to prioritize, because you’re trying to lead people. You want to give the right signals so those following you won’t go off on tangents and directions that aren’t helpful.
I always try to ask the question about what is the major enabling condition for a successful outcome. I came to that belief when I was chief operating officer at Stanford and we were working on a disaster-preparation plan. I asked what is the one enabling condition that will allow us to do other important things and if we don’t do it, it will not allow us to do other important things. Then we need to rally people around that one enabling condition and be sure they have the resources to follow through.
I know so many people who spoke up for what they believed in with much more dire consequences than I had — when you look back in history, such as the life of my grandfather. I am in an incredibly privileged position. My parents spoke up for what they believed in. If you aren’t able to do that, you can’t very well look yourself in the mirror.
You need to speak up for what you believe in, and yes, there will be consequences, but people in earlier generations and people around the world have had it much harder. My speaking up is pretty small compared to others. Even when I was secretary, I had an obligation to speak my thoughts. We can overdramatize how hard it is to be true to your conscience. It is simply something we must do.
As we conclude, please share your dreams for the 21st century.
I hope that the basic pyramid becomes very broad, so that all people have the opportunity to get to the top of it. Here in the U.S., it relates to a quality education system and integration by bringing people from around the world together.
The universal message that you can come from humble circumstances and still have the opportunity to do great things must become a reality. Everybody deserves freedom; everybody deserves an equal opportunity to advance. We are already closer to a more peaceful world. We must push it further and work harder.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I want to add my belief in the power of stories. Some people think if you are telling stories you’re not being analytical. When I speak, I use stories a lot. I would encourage those who speak or are convening people to share powerful, real-life stories.
Is there a particular story that has stuck with you throughout the years?
I tell one that encapsulates why authoritarianism isn’t going to last around the world. We were in Romania in 2005, and the Romanian people told us about the time when the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu went into a public square in Budapest and was telling people what he had done for them.
All of a sudden, one elderly woman yelled, “Liar!” into the crowd, and then 10 people and then hundreds and then thousands yelled the same word. He and his wife Elena were eventually executed — and it sticks in my mind that the moment people let go of fear, when a policeman or soldier refuses to fire into the crowd or moves away from the Berlin Wall, people assert themselves.
That story about Ceausescu has stuck with me as a powerful way that people were sharing a vivid image of why authoritarianism can’t last. There always will be one brave person in the crowd. And [the message] is best communicated by a story.
This interview is presented courtesy of the Washington Speakers Bureau.
Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC.