Condoleezza Rice: a case study in leadership

Buried inside a profile of Condoleezza Rice in this week's Time is the kernel of a fascinating new case study in leadership.

by Time
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

You have all the ingredients of a very interesting lab experiment. Not only does Rice have to contend with the kind of pressure that would make most CEOs baulk, she has only 23 months left to save President Bush's foreign policy legacy. Whilst Rice remains popular, her boss does not.

Therefore, she has to contend with increasing disquiet at home whilst dealing with some of the toughest questions of the moment such as climate change. She must also try to prevent an outbreak of war with Iran and at the same time, deal with the diplomatic fallout of Iraq's growing quagmire.

Rice's rise to fame is the stuff of legend: learning to play Beethoven at age five and securing Stanford tenure by the age of 24. She is famed for her steely intellect and blistering pace of work, all of which has made her an effective and imposing diplomat, hammering out tough deals across the world. Indeed, her success in winning round Europe's leaders following the Iraq intervention and strengthening US-Indian strategic relations may go down in the history books as her two great achievements.

But now, as Bush's star wanes, Rice needs to deal with immediate problems such as Iran's nuclear threat whilst trying to pursue a more effective policy in the Middle East based on real politik. The latter means seeking to broker peace between Palestine and Israel, no mean task for any US Secretary of State, leave alone one with less than two years left in office.

On the plus side she has some formidable aforementioned leadership qualities: stunning intellect matched by almost superhuman levels of energy (she is up at 4.45 every morning when she is in Washington, works out and is still at her desk by 6.30). All of this is in turn underpinned by impressive self-belief and optimism. If you want a mountain moved, Rice is your woman.

But then there is Rice's alleged inability to build a strong team to enable her to deliver results. Even she cannot be everywhere at once. When you take into account the fact that she needs to tackle some of the world's biggest problems (e.g. stopping genocide in Africa, fighting poverty in the developing world, climate change), then the lack of proper staff support could be a tragic management mistake. This is only hinted at by Time. It reports that Rice has not been able to impose 'discipline' on the State Department in spite of her energy and outward success.

"She went for months last year without a No.2, before naming John Negroponte to the job last month. One of her most trusted advisers, Philip Zelikow, left in early January. Many in the foreign policy community believe her team is thin and uncreative. 'She has a weak bench,' says a Republican congressional aide. And she can't be everywhere.'"

A stronger bench team might help. Having a weak one certainly is dangerous as any leader knows. But humility is not, perhaps, one of Rice's strong suits. Being able to admit mistakes or come down to the level of mere mortals (who may not relish 6.30 starts) may not be in her nature. However, if she was a board director on US PLC, the CEO or chairman might at this point appoint a coach to soften some of her hard edges.

After all, in most other areas she seems the perfect leader. How hard could it be to coach her to become a better manager of people? She has shown she has plenty of charm by the way in which she has rebuilt US bridges to Europe. But it seems that she has not turned her charm inward to nurture her own team.

The weight of the world
By Romesh Ratnesar and Elaine Shannon
Time, 19 February 2007
Review by Morice Mendoza

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