Leadership Library Review — “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are: A Memoir” by Ursula M. Burns (Amistad, 2021)

August 2021

“I could run this place, I remember thinking.” – Ursula Burns

What are the big take-aways?

This engrossing memoir by the former CEO of Xerox, and the first African American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, is ultimately a story about how the personal and professional philosophies of an authentic leader are forged.  The book jacket says it best: “Candid and outspoken, Burns offers a remarkable look inside the C-suites through the eyes of a Black woman – someone who puts humanity over greed, and justice over power.  Empathetic and dedicated, idealistic and pragmatic, Burns demonstrates that no matter your circumstances, hard work and leadership can change your life – and the world.”  Not an overstatement.

Why do I like it?

Born into poverty but with a single mother rigorously devoted to her children’s safety and advancement, Burns survived the bullies of her New York City public-housing neighborhoods and the brutal punishment of the nuns supervising her parochial education to eventually discover her gifts for math, science and writing at Cathedral High School in Manhattan.  Having been admitted to Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, City College and Brooklyn Polytechnic, she chose Brooklyn Polytechnic (now New York University) for the practical and financial advantages of her HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program) eligibility there.  Her major was mechanical engineering, a field in which she immediately encountered racism as a student: “It wasn’t that they were mean to me (they weren’t); they just couldn’t comprehend how a Black girl could be as smart as or, in some cases, smarter than they were” (p. 101).  Burns’s career at Xerox began with an internship during her junior year in college, and she started working full-time for the company in 1981.  She became the CEO of Xerox in 2009 (a job handed off to her by another ground-breaking woman, Anne Mulcahy).  Xerox is also where Burns met her complicated, beloved and career-supporting husband, Lloyd, who retired to take care of their kids.

Who wouldn’t love that story?  And not just because it’s inherently inspiring for any number of reasons, but I also loved it because Burns’s narrative voice is frank, incisive, relatable and unsparingly “warts-and-all.”  Her intense journey – and the surprisingly gripping corporate tale of Xerox – through the 36 years she spent there is captivating and (for someone like me who’s less familiar with the visceral insides of for-profit global enterprise, especially in the manufacturing industry) quite educational.  Secondarily, it’s an ode to what the research of Zenger and Folkman has uncovered about gender and leadership: “Women are perceived by their managers — particularly their male managers — to be slightly more effective than men at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area of the organization. That includes the traditional male bastions of IT, operations, and legal.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Where You Are Is Not Who You Are is an engaging, almost conversational autobiography about authentic and inclusive leadership, which – in its thoughtful descriptions of how to navigate many key polarities in business and in life – could serve anyone’s development.  Although I imagined I’d be recommending this book to women clients and clients of color, the first person I found myself mentioning it to (before I even finished it) was a white male leader of an engineering college at a big university who’s creating new diversity initiatives. 

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

I recommend Daphne Jefferson’s Dropping the Mask: Connecting Leadership to Identity (New Degree, 2020), which happens to cite Ursula Burns as an example early in the book.  While geared toward leaders of color, especially Black women, Dropping the Mask is a comprehensive exposition of what makes any authentic leader – a person who owns and capitalizes on the whole of his or her unique life experience to purposefully influence others – so effective.  It nicely knits together a number of my favored leadership research interests, such as neuroscience, emotional intelligence, story-telling, communication and self-authorship.  

Relative to race and Covid-19, for leaders considering whether or how to go “room, Zoom or hybrid” at this stage of the pandemic I recommend this Washington Post article about African American women in the workforce and why some are not eager to return to the office.  (And if, for any reason, you yourself are seeking to work remotely, here’s some quick advice about how to negotiate a long-term arrangement.)

For a less conventional pairing – i.e. an audio-visual treat, arguably about (and itself an act of) African American leadership, authenticity and joy – I suggest the enlightening and exuberant new documentary, Summer of Soul (currently in some theaters and streaming on Hulu).

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