Former Ambassador Pamela E. Bridgewater experienced unexpected benefits from taking risks when posted to Pretoria, South Africa, in 1990.
Bridgewater, who grew up in a segregated Fredericksburg neighborhood, said that she wondered how she’d cope there during apartheid, which wouldn’t end for four more years.
“I made the decision that I was going to have an open mind and find ways to break barriers,” she told attendees at the University of Mary Washington’s annual Leadership Colloquium on Thursday at the university’s Stafford County campus.
Bridgewater, who was keynote speaker at popular event for women, said that she found ways to meet people of all races, from Afrikaners to Zulus. One of those people was Nelson Mandela, whom she got to work with closely over the six years of her posting.
She became the U.S. Department of State’s longest-serving diplomat in South Africa, and Mandela invited her to a one-on-one lunch at his home before she left to become Deputy Chief of Mission in Nassau, Bahama.
“What a ride that was,” she said. “Ladies, we never know what path we will end up on if we take risks.”
Risk taking, Bridgewater said, is the No. 1 key to being an effective leader. She advised attendees to ask themselves why they did or didn’t take a risk, and to think about that the next time the opportunity for risk arises.
Effective leaders also need to do the right thing, even if it puts them at odds with family and society, she said.
Bridgewater held up as role models Doris Buffett, who uses her fortune to help others through her Sunshine Lady Foundation; Gladys Todd, who helped organize the 1960 sit-ins in Fredericksburg; and Harriett Tubman, an escaped slave who led other slaves to freedom and became a Union scout and spy during the Civil War. The Treasury Department announced in April that Tubman’s face will appear on the front of the $20 bill.
The former ambassador, who attended Walker–Grant High School in Fredericksburg and has two degrees in political science, also talked about the Nigerian school girls who were kidnapped two years ago by Boko Haram. The Islamic group’s name has been translated to mean that “Western,” or “non-Islamic,” education is a sin.
Some of the girls kidnapped from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok were brave enough to jump off a speeding bus and escape, Bridgewater said. Others, who were eventually found, had been raped and came home with babies.
“That broke my heart,” she said. “Ladies, we must find ways to support the rights of women and children, especially girls.”
Leaders also need to be compassionate, know how to think critically and have good communication skills, Bridgewater said. The latter includes knowing how to listen and to be open to ideas. She said that she always asked her staff if anyone had a better idea about whatever issue they were dealing with.
“When I knew I had a little edge, I wasn’t afraid to say, ‘I think we’re going to do it this way,’ ” she said to laughter.
Bridgewater ended her speech with the story of a woman who excelled at school, was named valedictorian of her class but was denied the chance to speak at graduation because of her race. She went on to overcome an abusive marriage and other obstacles to get a college education and a position in the foreign service.
She urged attendees to be hungry for knowledge and become lifelong learners.
“There is something that you can learn from everyone you meet,” she said, “if you will be open.”