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Condoleezza Rice Shares Key Lessons From a Lifetime of Leadership at GLS 2023

People leading during a crisis must determine what their top priority is, and hers at the time was never to let such an attack happen again. It was key that she not “let that sense of remorse and mourning…overcome what really had to be done at that moment.”

Rice also pointed out that it was crucial to have leaders who were competent and adaptive, even if they lacked knowledge about certain areas. Sometimes that is how leaders have to operate in crises, she said. “The biggest mistake you can make is not acting.”

Rice openly acknowledged regrets she has about how she and others led the country through the 9/11 tragedy. She said she wishes they had seen the attacks coming and that they had conducted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan better. But Rice said that her biggest regret is what the Bush administration failed to accomplish in the area of immigration reform. Immigrants are key to the identity of the United States, Rice said, noting that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, and that they contribute to our society, no matter how they arrive in the country. 

Mere days before the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush met with Vicente Fox Quesada, then the president of Mexico, with the goal of working toward “comprehensive immigration reform.” But 9/11 changed everything. “I think our country is having difficult conversations about immigration in part because we weren’t able to get those reforms made,” Rice said.

Condoleezza Rice’s Leadership Lessons

During the interview, Condoleezza Rice shared a variety of insights she has about leadership from her life experience. One is that the most important quality any leader has is being trustworthy. “Integrity is the bedrock of leadership,” said Rice, and lost trust cannot be restored. She warned that gossip can destroy an organization faster than anything else, and she exhorted leaders to fight to protect trust. 

Good leaders invest in building leadership qualities in others, and they know how to cast a vision. As a leader, Rice would use narratives to create vision because “people react well to stories.” She would try to give the people she was working with a sense of perspective from history, reminding them of the dangers and difficulties the world faced previously in the 20th century and how some of those were unexpectedly overcome. 

Leaders should be focused, not merely on achieving current goals, but also on passing on better conditions to the people who come after them. They should be aware of what is going on in their organizations, meet people where they are, be consistent, and be good listeners.

Rice had specific words of encouragement for female leaders, hearkening back to the resiliency with which she was raised. “There is no better time than now to be a woman who is either in a leadership position or seeks positions of leadership,” she said. This is true, even if women or other minorities feel out of place. There were times in her career when she would walk into a room and people would look at her as though she were in the wrong meeting. Instead of becoming discouraged or angry, she would think, “In a few minutes, they’re going to know I’m not in the wrong meeting.”

She recalled working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1980s, saying, “I was three things they had never seen: civilian, Black and female.” At first they had her making the coffee, but Rice did not respond with resentment (she joked that, in any case, she makes coffee so strong no one can drink it). Then she won the football pool and, by implication, their respect. 

Rice encouraged minorities that they have the opportunity to be a bridge to people who are nervous they are in the room. “It’s ok to try to make them comfortable,” she said, “not just wait for them to make you comfortable.”