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4 Things Condoleezza Rice Says Make or Break a Team

By Don Yaeger | November 17, 2022
4 Things Condoleezza Rice Says Make or Break a Team

Condoleezza Rice knows what makes people work well together.

You know her as the former United States Secretary of State, standing in gaps between nations during George W. Bush’s administration. But her talent for seeing collaborative dynamics dates long before that – her father, a football coach, inspired such a strong love of the game that she could strategize like a pro at only six years old.

She leveraged this passion and prowess through her career in academia – as professor and provost at Stanford University – as well as politics. Her eye for teamwork earned her a seat on the first College Football Playoff Selection Committee in 2013.

I sat down with Dr. Rice for my Corporate Competitor podcast earlier this year to learn what leadership lessons she could share, and how her experience has shaped her perspective.

Culture helps people connect for a cause.

Behind every successful team, there’s a solid, central culture keeping them together – a foundation of mutual respect that empowers individuals to come together without competing, and belief that motivates members when things aren’t going their way.

And these are Condoleezza Rice’s 4 pillars of that culture.


When asked what she looks for in promising performers in play, “identity” is the first word on her mind. Is the group fighting from a place of common values?

“Is there something that they can go to when they’re down by 14 at the half? If they’re constantly trying to be something that they’re not, then they’re not going to be very successful.”

According to Dr. Rice, this applies to all teams, including organizations. “If they don’t have an identity, it will be harder for people to understand what’s expected, which is especially important when things are going badly.”


Whether on the playing field, in an office, or on the world stage, the best teams exist for something bigger than themselves. There’s a recognition that, together, we can do what we couldn’t on our own. Collaboration turns the group into something greater than the sum of its parts, and recognizing that is key to a team’s success.

“If everybody were an offensive lineman on a football team, it wouldn’t work,” offered Rice. “Another thing I like about sports is, nobody’s going to say to the offensive lineman, ‘Well, you just block. That’s not really important. I throw the ball.’ Try throwing the ball when the offensive lineman doesn’t block.”

Dr. Rice’s time as National Security Advisor also saw her working often with special forces, some of the world’s best-trained and efficient teams. One of the secrets to their strength? Trust. “They will tell you that they just have to be able to trust that that person next to them is going to do his job.”


When we think of a team – especially a sports team – we think of fighting, struggling, overcoming the odds. In our mind’s eye, we see the conflict and we root for our side. But one thing we may forget is how quickly a team can be brought down from the inside.

“The first thing that can break a team apart more quickly than anything else is when people are constantly whispering about one another, or talking down about somebody behind their back,” cautions Dr. Rice. “Gossip for gossip’s sake is corrosive. If you need more from that person, then go have a conversation with that person.”


As a Maxwell Leadership thought leader, the word “leader” is already in my title twice. Needless to say, I may be a little biased toward the role of leadership in performance.

But where people are working together, they need multipliers and magnifiers. They need someone who can step up to make many work like one.

Dr. Rice offers that a team is meant to be “a cohesive unit in which everybody’s skills and capabilities are used to their maximum.” So when she’s considering a team’s potential, she asks, “Are there leaders on the team who can bring out the best in others?”

What do most Fortune 500 executives have in common?

They learned their leadership lessons on the fields and courts of their high school and collegiate sports teams. This is true for both men and women. Ernst & Young found that a whopping 94% of women holding a C-suite position played sports. Corporate Competitor Podcast, hosted by Don Yaeger, is your all-access pass to the brightest executives in the world and the lessons they learned through sports. You can listen to Dr. Rice’s whole interview and other episodes here.

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