As a teenager, Condoleezza Rice won a series of piano competitions.
But in her first national test, she misplayed a Mozart piano sonata.
Her parents tried to console her, but she preferred to be alone.
She replayed the failure over and over in her mind, then said: enough. The next day she was preparing for the next competition.
Rice, turning 56 over the weekend, tells this anecdote in her newly published autobiography, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family,” and goes on to explain that the incident taught her an important lesson:
Don’t dwell on problems. “When things go terribly wrong, my first preference is to be alone,” she told IBD in a phone interview. “At that particular moment, there’s really nothing anyone can say to me. It’s important for me to work through a problem on my own and then not wallow. I’m not a wallower.”
Rice’s ability to step back, examine a problem and move on is one of the skills that catapulted her to national security adviser and secretary of state to President George W. Bush.
It helped her, she said, “during one of my worst moments,” during the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006. “I had enormous admiration for Lebanon’s prime minister (Fouad Siniora), but we couldn’t call for an immediate cease-fire because that would leave Hezbollah in too strong a position. Every night I would go home and have a talk with myself and ask whether we were on the right course. After a while it came to me.”
The U.S., she realized, was right in letting the conflict, which started in July 2006, play out to its conclusion a month later.
Rise In Alabama
Rice grew up in segregated Birmingham, Ala. â€” the city of Bull Connor, German shepherds and water hoses. But her parents refused to let her use that as an excuse for failure.
“I was shaped by my parents’ belief that you may not be able to control your circumstances, but you can control your response to your circumstances,” she said. “For them, the best response was education to arm yourself.”
They felt education and an appreciation for culture could alter the equation. “The expectations of me were high,” Rice said. In school, in piano and in figure skating she was expected to and did excel.
The family made major decisions jointly, and young Condoleezza was in charge. “I didn’t just have a vote,” she said. “I was the president. I called the meetings. I put together an agenda. It was sort of an ingenious thing on my parents’ part. It gave me a sense of responsibility about decision making. If something needed to be decided, I had to get it done. I learned pretty early on to be comfortable around adults and approach things in a way that made them take me seriously.”
Her confidence is one of the first things Stephen Hadley noticed about her. Hadley, now a principal at RiceHadley Group, an international consulting firm, served as Rice’s deputy at the National Security Agency and took over when Rice moved to State.
Years before during George H.W. Bush’s administration, Hadley listened to Russia expert Rice’s take on how America should react to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“I immediately could see that she was very smart and knew her field very well,” Hadley told IBD. “She had a very good presence and manner about her, confident without being arrogant, confident enough to invite other people into the dialogue and not be threatened by other points of view. In fact, she welcomed them.”
By 2006, Hadley was listening to Secretary of State Rice’s opposition to George W. Bush’s Iraq War troop-surge plan. But not for long.
“She listened to the dialogue and became a supporter,” Hadley said.
Rice agrees that “I’m pretty good at involving people.” She also knows that a leader has to make the call, as when she was a top administrator at Stanford University in the 1990s. “When I took the job, I said I do not do committees. I will consult, but when the time comes to making a decision, it’s all mine and the (Stanford) president’s. I learned the importance of being decisive.”
Rice was also on board at the highest level, especially after the terrorist massacre of nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.
“The president made some very hard decisions after 9/11 about what we had to do to keep the country safe,” Hadley said, referring to interrogation and surveillance. “Those decisions were very controversial, particularly among our allies. (Rice) had to go overseas and receive the brunt of criticism about those policies. She was very blunt and clear about what we were doing. It was not popular in Europe.”
Helping fortify Rice was witnessing her mother’s battle against the cancer that killed her in 1985.
“I learned what real courage was like,” Rice said. “To face that kind of challenge, to combat the fear of that disease and its possible return and to do it in a way that it doesn’t ripple around you is real courage.
“I tried to be that way after 9/11. We were all incredibly fearful and I tried to get up every day and rally the people and do the job, do the work and make the people around me stronger. I had to remind myself not to be debilitated, but to move forward and rally people.”
Much of Rice’s family life sparked her work ethic. When she was 7, she asked her parents for ice skating lessons. They agreed and for years her dad got up before dawn and drove her to the rink so she could work out with a coach. “I was really a terrible figure skater,” she said. “I worked very hard, but frankly I was in the wrong sport. I’m 5-8 with 5-10 legs. But that experience taught me perseverance and how to work hard at something I wasn’t very good at. When it’s not easy and you succeed at something, you feel a great sense of accomplishment.”
Rice gave it her all as a classical pianist as well. After all her childhood competitions, she majored in music at the University of Denver. Soon she grasped that she’d never be a concert-level pianist.
“I didn’t want to be mediocre,” she said. “I’ve always believed there’s another passion to be discovered. That’s why I always advise students to find something they’re passionate about, to just keep looking.”
Rice was a junior when she decided to switch majors. She went on a desperate hunt â€” trying English literature and political science before wandering into an international politics course and finding her calling.
She went on to receive her master’s from the University of Notre Dame, returned to Denver for her Ph.D. and in 1981 joined Stanford’s faculty to teach political science.
Rice wasted little time seeking out mentors. “I really laugh out loud when I hear people say they don’t want to network; they want to get there on their own. Well, no one really gets there on their own,” she said. “Meeting people who can help you, who can introduce you to the right people. I learned that from people like (Bush 41’s national security adviser) Brent Scowcroft, who was a great mentor to me.
“I’ve tried to pass that on, to mentor young people, take them along with me to meetings. I used to ask to be briefed by a young foreign service officer as well as the actual desk officer (in charge of a region) to offer them opportunities as well.”