In 1961 an 8-year-old Chinese girl got on a cargo ship in Taiwan with her mother and two sisters, bound for the United States. When the ship was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one of the girl’s younger sisters fell gravely ill. The freight vessel had no doctor on board, so the girl’s mother could do nothing but try to bring her fever down by bathing her in cold water. Three days later, the fever broke, and after a 37-day ocean journey the family arrived in this country.
The 8-year-old girl spoke no English, but she enrolled in the third grade anyway, determined to do her best. In those early days, it was her father — who had spent three years alone in the United States, earning the money to bring his family halfway around the world to join him — who taught little Elaine English by reviewing her school lessons with her at night. She paid attention, worked hard and went on to distinguish herself as both an achiever and a leader.
Fifty years later a lifetime of leadership reached an apex when President George W. Bush named Elaine Chao to be the 24th U.S. secretary of labor. Before that time she had served as chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, director of the Peace Corps, and president and CEO of the United Way. Since leaving government at the end of Bush’s second term in 2009, she has served on a number of corporate and nonprofit boards and has been a contributor to Time Opinion Online and Fox News.
In an interview this week, Chao talked about her definition of leadership, how lasting achievements happen and how her experience as an immigrant has shaped her understanding of leadership.
Your talk at the Shelton Leadership Forum is titled “Leadership Decisions as Game Changers.” What do you plan to talk about during your address?
While I am constantly learning how to be a better leader, I’d like to share some observations that may be useful to others striving to develop their own leadership potential. These include the importance of understanding the drivers of our rapidly changing globalized economy, the importance of understanding the culture of the organization in which we work—especially how the public, nonprofit and government sectors differ—and some of the personal attributes that characterize good leaders.
How would you define leadership?
A good leader is someone who, first and foremost, understands that the mission of a leader is to serve others, to create value for others. He or she must have a vision of where the organization needs to go, the ability to inspire others to follow that vision and the skills to elicit the best performance from his or her team members.
You’ve held a wide variety of leadership positions in government, the private sector and the nonprofit world. Is there a common thread in your approach to leadership that unites all of these different experiences?
One of the most important lessons I learned from observing many other leaders build their careers was this: Lasting achievement is based on a series of incremental steps that build upon one another. There is no such thing as overnight success. Always be prepared for the next step. For example, I prepared for my position as a cabinet member by first leading smaller agencies.
Do you feel that your experiences as an immigrant taught you any unique lessons about leadership—lessons you might not have learned any other way?
My experience as an immigrant has been invaluable in providing many insights into the importance of building bridges of understanding between cultures. Today, America is much more diverse than when I immigrated here as an 8-year-old girl, speaking no English. That’s especially true in the workplace. So it’s helpful for leaders building a team in a diverse environment to cultivate a leadership style that is respectful of different cultures, sensitive to cultural differences, that listens to the verbal and nonverbal communications from stakeholders so they can better understand each person’s strengths in order to elicit the best from the team.
If you could give one piece of advice to those seeking to increase their leadership potential, what would it be?
The catalyst for growth as a person, a professional and a leader is to constantly challenge oneself. This is something I learned very early from my parents, who faced many challenges throughout their lives; yet they never gave up on their dreams and kept moving forward. So, for example, years ago I applied for a White House fellowship at a time when very few Asian Americans were accessing that path. I wanted to learn how our government worked, and I thought the best way to find out was to take an apprenticeship that would allow me to observe government firsthand. It proved invaluable to my career.