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  • Writer's pictureEdited by: Atif Zafar, MD

3 Lessons From The Life of Ursula Burns That Will Make You Cerebrate As A Doctor.

As an early-career physician, and a student of leadership, I love observing traits of leaders within and outside the healthcare industry. How some transformed their businesses while evolving in their careers. And a few among them, leave a legacy. Ursula Burns, probably not known to many within the healthcare domain, is admired for her humble personality, bold leadership and her ability to adapt. To her crown, she was the first African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company. We will talk more about her professional successes and her life-story in a bit.

Ursula Burns was the CEO of Xerox from 2009 to 2016 until she eventually stepped down to take another CEO role at VEON. During her tenure, she was able to transform a "paper-copy" company into a customer-centric service-providing multi-billion-dollar business. Currently, she is the board of directors for Uber, along with multiple other hats that she wears.

Ursula Burns was born and raised by a single mother, in a poverty laden neighborhood of Manhattan, NY. Education and development of her children were important for Ursula Burn's mother, and that is what Ms. Burns feels was the strongest foundation for her career success. As physicians, it all makes so sense so far. But there is more.

Ursula Burns joined Xerox in 1980, as an intern after her STEM degree from NYU. During her early years in junior positions, she was able to complete a master's degree from Columbia University adding value to her role. This helped her get the academic advantage and improve her self-worth as an employee. However, that is not the main lesson. Ursula Burns continued to work at junior and mid-level roles for more than a decade. During one of the international meetings, Ursula Burns, who so far was a little-known figure at Xerox, had a showdown publicly with the executive VP of Xerox, Wayland Hicks. When one attendee inquired from the Xerox leadership on why it is investing and emphasizing on diversity as a company (remember, this was 15-20 years ago), Ursula Burns, thought the calculated logical answer by Mr. Hicks was "lacking in passion". She ended up creating a scene with heated to and fro discussion between her and the execute VP. She was very bold and passionate about her beliefs, and even though she acknowledges that she should not have boiled up in public, she was fortunate that instead of being fired, she was offered to take the executive assistant role by the very same VP. Lesson 1, is not about the heated encounter and whether the behavior of Ursula Burns in a public meeting is something doctors need to replicate. It is about the passion for our beliefs and the lack of fear for standing up on what we think is right! Today, the two most important entities in healthcare, patients and their providers, are the most frustrated and dissatisfied as it may get. The spontaneity of human passion for the right cause nurtures in the noble profession we chose. Today, it is nowhere to be found among physicians in general. Insurance companies dictate whether Lyrica or Eliquis can be prescribed to the patients, and when 10 minutes of a patient visit is complemented by 20 minutes of documentation by the very same physicians. Lesson 1 is about passion and standing up for what is right.

One of the most popular quotes of Ursula Burns is, "I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor". Sounds like game over for most but she maneuvered through this. Remember, she ended up becoming the first African American CEO of a Fortune 500 company and was ranked among the Forbes most powerful woman in the world. She has repeatedly advised folks to understand and acknowledge that being a minority or an 'alien' for that matter can be approached in two ways: the typical way which the people in this world do, and Ursula Burns way, which is considering the minority or unique (alien) factor as an opportunity. Yes, hard work and being competitive would be a requirement to convert the self-uniqueness into an opportunity. And yes, Ursula Burns was and is a competitive person with bold leadership skills, so she did not succumb with the 3-strikes. What is not quoted is, "Believe that there are no limitations, no barriers to your success - you will be empowered and you will achieve." Lesson 2, one in four physician work-force in the US comprises of international physicians, majority of whom are considered as a minority in the country; similarly, one in three practicing physicians are women in the U.S. Only 4% of current physician work-force are African Americans, even less so are Native Americans. There is no denying the fact that there are hindrances, but there are opportunities too. Ursula Burns shows us the path of opportunity, however hard it may be. As physicians, especially the minority amongst us, you can create a path of leadership if you so desire. Lesson 2 is about creating your path to success.

After many years of the mid-career track, Ursula Burns was allowed to take the executive role. At the time somewhere in the year 2000, Xerox was going through challenges as a copying company, even discussion of bankruptcy were in the air. Ursula Burns created value by adapting to the changing environment, showing her leadership skills and eventually creating her worth to the point that she was hand-picked to become the CEO of Xerox in 2009. She transformed her copying company into a service business, adding billion-worth of revenue on the way. Lesson 3, is about transformation as needed, and this final lesion is about how critical transformation is both for individuals and organizations. Being stuck in a moment is where failures come in. The healthcare system, just like the rest of the industries are technologically, financially, and in all other ways, evolving rapidly. Tele-healthcare models, customer satisfaction, artificial intelligence and even the role of allied healthcare providers in clinical practice are changing the very culture and dynamics of traditional models. This is the time of transformation for doctors, even if it requires attending work-shops, reading books, learning to program, getting more degrees, or whatnot. Rather than resisting the intrusion of EMRs, the increasing role of NPs, the dictating role of insurance companies, physicians will have to jump in various leadership roles based on their individual interests, such as, taking the role of Chief Information Officer in your hospital or practice, if IT is your thing, or finding other innovative roles. Solutions have to be created. The void (of inefficiency, expense, wastes, lack of access, dissatisfaction) in the current healthcare system has to be filled. And it must be filled proportionally by physicians. And transformation does not wait. Just like it did not wait for the car industry. It will not wait for us. Transformation time is now.


Atif Zafar, MD is the author of the book "Why Doctors Need To Be Leaders: A Call To Action Amidst The Evolving Complexities of Healthcare". He is a neurologist, a researcher, an entrepreneur, an advocate, mentor, coach, and a life-long student of neuroscience and leadership. He can be reached at


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