In the summer of 2014, I arrived in the US from China for an MBA education with a top 20 university in the US. One of the core courses in the first semester was titled “Leadership”. At the beginning of the semester, the professor conducted a class-wide survey, which was composed of a “self-assessment” and a “peer-assessment”, in which the students rated each classmate on how they perceived that classmate: Do you consider he/she a leader? Do you think he/she is a valuable contributor in the classroom? Do you think he/she is difficult? And so on. The same survey was then re-run a few more times throughout the semester, as the students got to know each other more through various activities (and, of course, as the learning from the Leadership class progressed).
I never cared for the class, as I believe “leadership” is a mindset you grow in yourself through real life events and mature self-reflection, rather than something dryly taught in a classroom by watching mediocre documentaries and participating in half-hearted discussions. I didn’t feel that I changed or improved in my “leadership skills” after the class. Well, I know there must be people who enjoyed the class and would say that they had learnt a great deal, but unfortunately, it was not me. However, I did have my thought-provoking moment from the class which I still remember to this day – and I feel compelled to share it with you.
So, what had struck me? Actually, it’s a question in the survey as common to western students as this: Do you consider yourself a leader? My mind was blank on seeing the question, as, believe it or not, I had never given it much thought. I was born and raised in Shanghai, China. In Chinese, we have several sayings: “the shot hits the bird that pokes its head out”; and “exposed rafters are the first to rot”. Individual heroism in the Chinese culture is more derogatory than complimentary, and is still to be criticized and suppressed in many state-run, conservative institutions in China. In my twenty-eight years’ life prior to coming to the US, “leadership” as a notion as well as a skill had never been discussed or mentored to me.
So, did I consider myself a leader? I truly had no answer, as I had barely any data points or deep understanding from my previous experience. The question “do you consider yourself a leader” meant just as much to me as “do you fancy yourself a good Quidditch player?”
Then there was a follow-up question, “would you volunteer to be the leader for an event? If so, it would be because…” One of the options was: because I believe I could do a better job than anyone else. Well, that was quite a novel thought to me too. It NEVER occurred to me that I could do a better job than anyone else, despite the fact I graduated the top of my high school class and was the very first to be accepted into Peking University (which is the Chinese equivalent of Harvard) in the 150 year history of my high school– no kidding. I went on to earn two Bachelor’s Degrees from Peking University and upon graduation, I worked in Fortune 500 companies for six years before taking a risk by quitting and coming to the US to pursue my MBA degree on a merit-based scholarship at a top university. I am stating these facts not to brag, but to highlight that I should have had a bit more confidence in myself than “it NEVER occurred to me that I could do a better job than anyone else.”
In China, with a 1.3 billion population and the lasting psychological impact from the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the idea of “competing for survival resources” was deeply rooted in the subconsciousness of my parents’ generation. To cultivate this “survival mindset” in their offspring, the Chinese parents dared not to let their children get content with what they had achieved. If the child scored second place in his or her class in a math exam, the seed the parents would plant in the child’s head would be: we need to study the gap between you and that top kid, so next time you could strive for that first place. Whereas American parents would gleefully say to the child: Great job! You are amazing! I’m so proud of you!
I had never received such positive reinforcements from my parents. As a matter of fact, if someone else would offer compliments to me in front of my parents, my parents would instantly exclaim “No, no, no! She is not that good! Your kid is better!” because that’s the socially proper way to respond to any compliment in the Chinese culture – you are supposed to be “humble”; “exposed rafters are the first to rot”, remember?
I wasn’t that great; my accomplishment weren’t anything special. I had been “brainwashed” by the Chinese culture (my parents as its proxy) that neither did I have any idea if I could be a leader, nor did I have the confidence that I had my merits and was better than other people (at least in certain aspects). My foundation for receiving any training on “leadership” was as crumbled as it could be. I was a lost cause to the “Leadership” class from day one.
I carried this self-doubt in me throughout the entire semester, which surely showed through my interactions with other people. I rarely spoke up in classes or in group discussions, because in my mind my opinion must not be worthy compared to other people’s. Not surprisingly, by the end of the semester, the number of my classmates who rated me as a “leader” decreased to close to zero.
If, there’re any educators that are reading this post now, I would strongly hope that you would make it an awareness that your Chinese (maybe also other Asian) students need more acknowledgements and compliments than your average American students, to make up that “compliment deficiency” that they grew up with. For those who have a Chinese classmate, or a Chinese colleague, or a Chinese direct report, please consider the fact that that Chinese friend of yours may very well have much more to offer than it appears on the surface, if you could help bring it out of him or her by offering a little bit more compliment to them.
In 2016, I graduated with my MBA and joined a large corporate as a financial analyst and was then promoted to senior analyst within a year. However, I was not satisfied. I didn’t feel fulfilled. I had nine years’ solid work experience now and an MBA degree. I wanted to be more than a small bolt in a huge corporate machine. I wanted to prove myself and to make an impact (four years’ American life had rubbed off on me, hadn’t it…) I wanted to be a people leader, even if it was just for a teeny-tiny team in a teeny-tiny company. Did I consider myself as a leader? I still didn’t know, but I wanted to find out.
But finding such a role wasn’t easy for me. I came from a different culture and had only minimum experience managing any teams. Why would any HR favor me over someone who already had a proven record of leading a team? When I eventually got an interview invitation from a middle sized company for its Controller/CFO position, I was so grateful that I said to my husband, “I am so happy that they even entertained my resume. Regardless of the result, I already have no regrets.”
At the same time, I was feeling extremely unsure about my capabilities. Could I really do it? Could I really be the head of the entire finance operation of a company? What if I messed up?
My husband (who is an American and a senior business leader) assured me, “I know you can do it.” He then analyzed the job description of the role with me and discussed with me now my skills and experiences relate to the responsibilities in the job description. He told me, “You are an amazing person. I believe in you. I’m so proud of you.” and he meant every single word of it.
I went for the interview, and then the second round the week after. I felt that I did pretty well at the interviews and started to think that maybe I did have a real shot of actually getting this job. It was the 4th of July holiday, many people took days off and things in the office slowed down, so I didn’t hear anything for almost a week. As I waited, a voice in my head was still casting doubt, “What if I messed up and got fired in three months?” Again, my husband gave me the faith I needed, “You owe it to yourself to give it a shot.”
So I did. I received the offer and accepted it.
At the age of 32, I realized my dream since college of having my own office. I had a large desk and a set of visitor chairs. A large sketching board on one side of the wall and abundant storage cabinets along the other side. I even had my own printer! However, the initial excitement soon passed after only a few days. What followed was a sense of “imposter” feeling. Sometimes when I walked back to my office from the restroom, I would glimpse at the cubicles of my team and image myself sitting there, all cozy and comfortable. I kept wondering: do I deserve the office with a printer of my own? Do I really have more knowledge and skills than my team? Would my team despise me? I tried to “please” my team by talking to them in an ultra nice, even sweet way. My default assumption was that other people know better than I do (“No, no, no! She is not that good! Your kid is better!”), so “playing nice” ought to be my way of being “accepted” as their boss.
When I was an individual contributor as in the senior analyst role, I didn’t really see how other people do their jobs and didn’t get to witness the final product of other people’s work. I didn’t really know how good or bad I was compared to other people. I just did my portion and sent it off. Now, as the lead of the entire finance department, I got to, as I had to, evaluate people’s work and provide directions to their processes. It was not until then that I “discovered” that it turned out I DO have more knowledge and skills, after all these years of work and education, than my team. What a contrasting realization from my upbringing! I know that I am not perfect, and I still have a ton to learn and to improve, but I was finally collecting some data points for that follow-up question “…because I believe I could do a better job than anyone else could.”
My “Leadership” class had finally began. Every week, I picked up new learnings and developed new understanding, about what was leadership and how to become a great leader. I also learnt more about myself. As I gained more confidence, I started to have some assertiveness in my tone and started to really finding my “presence” in work and also in life. I provide good directions to my team, guide and support them, hold them accountable, and also try my best to supply them with the best development opportunities as the company could afford. Last week, one of my team members said to me, “Thank you for being a leader who truly supports and believes in their team – it means the world to me.” What she didn’t know was that her comments also meant the world to me. I’m finding where I am going. My self-identity as a “leader” is becoming clearer and clearer by the day. I am forming my own so-called “leadership style”. If someone would ask me now: do you consider yourself a leader? I could confidently and legitimately answer: YES.
My “transformation” took me four years, and it wouldn’t have had happened if it were not for my husband, who is my mentor, my sponsor, and my true believer. He had helped me grow the confidence in myself by generously supplying me with the nurturing compliments, which enabled me to finally assume the “leadership” role. In a way, I had taken a three-year long “Confidence” class before my real “Leadership” class commenced. This is my experience. I’m sharing it with you and I hope that you are also on your way in finding that great leader in yourself.