Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox, says that throughout the years as she rose up the ranks of her company, she's received mountains of leadership advice -- some of it really bad.
"One of the things that I was told early on is that you should never let them see you sweat," she said in an insightful and flattering 3,000-word article that appeared on the cover of the New York Times business section a few Sundays ago. Burns continued: "I remember hearing that and saying: 'Oh my God! I think that they have to see you sweat.'"
Ursula Burns, who's been heading up Xerox since July, is the first African-American woman named the CEO of a major American company and one of only a dozen women running Fortune 500 companies. I've been fortunate to do consulting with Xerox employees, and have heard the incredible buzz about Ursula from those who work with her. They say she is open, grounded and down-to-earth.
Apart from her race and gender, in a number of ways, Burns is an example of a new breed of authentic, self-aware corporate leadership. Leadership has changed over the past 20 years. It's no longer common or desirable for a leader to be an old-school father or mother figure who makes decisions in a vacuum like the autocratic dictator of a small country. Here's what leadership isn't. It's not dictatorial, authoritarian or "all about me." It's not about big ego -- "my way or the highway" style thinking. It's not about greed, buckets of money or a big paycheck. As bank executives who sent the mortgage industry into the tank have shown over the past year, being a fat cat isn't the same as being a fine leader. Leadership isn't a male thing; it's not a female thing. It's a human thing that comes in all shapes and sizes.
The strongest leaders are authentic and have a keen self-awareness. They do not hide who they really are. Xerox employees say Burns is honest and keeps it real. She's a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person. She doesn't hole up in her office behind closed doors; in fact, co-workers I've spoken to say that despite an incredibly busy schedule, she makes time for people.
Leaders like Burns couldn't stay completely under-the-radar even if they wanted to. In our modern era, there is a different level of transparency that runs through our society. In the past, leaders had their shadows, though they might never be revealed. FDR suffered from painful polio that caused partial paralysis in his back, arms, and hands. But, by and large, the public never knew. Today, with bloggers, YouTube, 24-hour cable television and all the other media, you can't hide. Think Steve Jobs. The Apple chief wasn't able to hide either his pancreatic cancer or his subsequent liver transplant for very long. Early on bloggers were speculating all over the Internet, "Why is Steve Jobs so thin?"
Increased transparency means that all of us have become skilled at looking through the B.S., sniffing out what is false. A leader needs a good balance of self-confidence and humility for many of us to respond. The strongest leaders lack arrogance and overriding ego. They don't take themselves too seriously, and they can ask, "How am I doing?" As a leader, you must treat your followers, your team, with the grace and respect that they deserve. You aren't better than them, and they aren't there to serve you. In reality, leaders are the ultimate servants. Humble servants.
I was impressed that in meeting with high potential managers, Burns admitted that being applauded -- ad nauseum -- for being African-American "first," makes her uncomfortable. According to the Times, she received congratulatory cell phone calls from Magic Johnson and the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, though she didn't know how they got her number. "The accolades I get for doing absolutely nothing are amazing -- I've been named to every list, literally, since I became CEO," she told her employees. "The accolades are good for five minutes, but then it takes kind of a shine off the real story. The real story is not Ursula Burns. I just happen to be the person standing up at this point representing Xerox."
Like Burns, the most admired leaders know who they are and bring their whole selves to every table. They are empathetic and thoughtful, sometimes through painful experience, reflection and introspection. This personal evolution and development, makes them understanding, empathetic and compassionate toward others and allows them to connect.
It is impossible not to be moved by Burns' personal story, which she is quick to share. She was raised by a single mother on the Lower East Side of New York when it was, as she recalls, "really bad, when the gangs were there and the drug addicts." Her mother, who died before her daughter got the big job, supported the family and put Burns through college by watching other people's children and ironing and cleaning for a doctor. After graduate school, Burns came to Xerox in 1980 as an intern and worked her way to the top. Burns hasn't forgotten where she came from. If anything she used her past to enhance her wisdom, grace and leadership capabilities.
Burns has a tough job, especially in this economic climate. Last year, sales at Xerox dropped 14 percent, and the stock price has dipped to under $10. She will need to bring all her 21st Century leadership skills into play as she fights to restore her company's past glory and lead her 130,000 employees into a no-holds barred battle against rising competition from lower-priced printers. Her mother's rock-solid advice should come in handy. "Stuff happens to you," her mother told her. "Then there's stuff you happen to."
Copyright 2010 Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D, author of Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape
For more information, please visit www.CareerGPSthebook.com.