Leadership Challenges Addressed: Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s Inspiring Speech at Norwich University’s 2014 Residency Conference

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Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered the Residency Conference keynote address June 19 for Norwich University’s College of Graduate and Continuing Studies and for the entire university community as a part of the 2014 Todd Lecture Series. Her appearance highlighted a week in which the theme appropriately centered around leadership.

Rice didn’t disappoint. She not only spoke about leadership, but displayed it as well when hecklers interrupted her speech before a packed Shapiro Field House.

As a handful of protestors stood and loudly voiced their complaints, some in the audience began to boo. Rice gracefully asked those in attendance to let the protestors have their say, reminding everyone, “Sometimes democracy is noisy.”

William H. Clements, Vice President and Dean of the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies, watched as the scene unfolded a few feet from Rice on stage.

“I thought a lot about freedom of speech as we were leading up to this event,” Clements said. “We had prepared for some kind of protest, but we didn’t know exactly what would happen. I don’t think any of us who were there will forget the grace with which Dr. Rice handled the protests.”

Clements later moderated a lively question-and-answer session with Rice, who fielded unscripted questions from attendees. The dean opened the session by asking Rice if there was anything she would have done differently in Iraq.

Again, Rice might have surprised many in attendance with her answer.

“Oh, yes,” Rice said candidly. “We tried to rebuild Iraq from Baghdad out. In looking back now, we should have tried to rebuild Iraq from the outside in by working with the various tribal factions.”

“I thought that answer showed a lot of deep thought – the kind that comes with the passage of time,” Clements said of the 2014 Todd Lecture Series guest. “I knew then we were in for an engaging dialogue.”

One attendee asked Rice if she would consider running for president, to which she replied with a smile, “This is a real short answer: no.”

Rice’s seemingly thoughtful and candid answers might be the first clue no one will change her mind. She spoke with the freedom of someone not running for public office. She also spoke often as a moderate conservative, emphasizing there is a “great need” for “comprehensive immigration reform” and “civil dialogue.” In addition, she expressed a weariness about the partisan debate over global warming, adding, “Can’t we just all agree that people have affected this planet.”

Much to the delight of the crowd, Rice also regaled with personal anecdotes. “John Wesley Rice, Sr. – my grandfather – was a sharecropper,” Rice said. “He put himself through a semester of college by pulling cotton. When he was out of cotton, he was out of money for tuition. Then he noticed some people were getting scholarships. He asked, ‘How do I get one of those?’ He was told they were studying to be Presbyterian ministers. So he said, ‘That’s what I want to be.’

“We’ve been college educated and Presbyterians ever since.”

Rice’s Q&A would go on to inspire more insightful dialogue as she addressed some of the types of personal and professional demands confronting leaders. No doubt the grace Rice displayed at the beginning of her address and her candor throughout will serve to remind members of the Norwich University College of Graduate and Continuing Studies’ Class of 2014 – many of whom are currently in positions of leadership in the military, civilian public service, nonprofits and industry – that leadership challenges can be addressed with civility and humility.

Ron J. Jackson, Jr. is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing professionally for 29 years. He is the author of the upcoming nonfiction historical narrative, Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), and a member of the Western Writers of America. In June, Jackson received his Master of Arts in History from Norwich University. He lives in Binger, Oklahoma with his wife, Jeannia, and their four children.