Ursula Burns grew up poor, in the Lower East Side of New York. Her mother washed and ironed clothes for a living and exchanged cleaning services with a local doctor to provide health care for her three children. In 2009, Burns became CEO of Xerox, and the first and only female black CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Here’s how she did it, in her own words:

1. She learned important lessons about “who we are” early in life.

If you just look at the demographics—I was a poor black woman in a poor black family—you would think there was no way in the world that there would be options available to me. The reality is that, despite that, I had very few limitations when I was growing up. My mother told me very early in life—and my brother and sister as well—that where we were was not who we were. Who you are is about your character, it’s about the amount of energy you put into things, it’s about how much control you take of your whole life. She really believed that you control your destiny, your future.

2. She came to understand the value of education.

When I was a kid, she couldn’t change where we lived, but she could invest a disproportionate amount of her energy and her resources towards our education. . . . My mother’s highest pay, ever, was $4,400 a year; yet, somehow she managed to send me to a high school that cost $65 a month. Multiply that by three and you realize that half of her salary went to our education.

This emphasis on education led Burns eventually to a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Columbia University. She joined Xerox in 1981 and has stayed there ever since. Her hard work, dedication, and intelligence soon got noticed. In 1991, she became the executive assistant to the CEO of Xerox. In 2000, she became a senior vice president and began to work closely with Anne Mulcahy, who would later become CEO. In 2009, Burns became CEO, the first time that a Fortune 500 company had a woman-to-woman CEO transition.

3. She focused on human authenticity as a leader.

Despite these rare accomplishments, Ursula Burns has managed to retain an authenticity, directness, and sense of self-understanding that is remarkable. An emphasis on being authentic and bringing your whole self to the workplace is important for her. She has devel- oped a reputation at Xerox for her directness and her encouragement of employees to be more frank and impatient (and even cranky!) with one another. She said:

Crankiness is a human attribute that when people walk in the door of Xerox, they remain human. So they bring all of the goods, the bads and the uglies to work, and I like all of those things because we spend a lot of time here—wherever here is, here it could be anywhere, at home—but around this set of things that we do that we call work. We spend a lot of energy and a lot of time in it and I think that the best way to get the best out of people is to not force them to be something other than they naturally are.

It is still too early to tell whether Ursula Burns’s leadership style will bring a successful turnaround at Xerox. From its record high price of $64 per share in 1999, the stock price in early 2013 was only around $9. But Xerox seems to be recovering gradually as its earnings improve and the services division becomes a larger share (now at 52 percent) of the company’s sales.

If this turnaround is successful, it will be one of the great stories of corporate America, where a household name that invented an industry (copiers) managed to transition to a whole new set of offerings. Whether or not Burns will be the one ensuring this turn- around, she has already led a unique life of a leader-as-humanist.