Life Lessons from the Ambassador to Roberto

by Jay Maddock, PhD

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

Recently, I spent several days in Beijing, China, working on the development of the conference program for the 7th President George H.W. Bush China-US Relations Conference. I had the good fortune to be joined by my colleagues, retired Ambassador Eric Bost and Roberto Contreras IV, as members of the planning committee. As our journey brought us to far-flung corners of the bustling city from the US Embassy to Peking University and many points in between, I listened to Ambassador Bost give Roberto advice on life, work, and just about everything else. I joked with them that I was going to write a book about them, my attempt at Tuesdays with Morrie, but the more I listened, I realized that this wasn’t a joke; there was real value here, so I decided to capture some of the advice for this column.

China is an interesting place to think about advice. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “You know, everybody listens to the Chinese. I mean, look at the fortune cookie. You couldn’t get away with that in any other restaurant.” The ambassador was telling us how he had brought his 96-year-old father to China a few years before and how much he had loved the respect that was given to older adults in the country, something we could do a much better job of in the US. I thought about the three of us, each separated by about 20 years: the ambassador in this mid-60s, me in my mid-40s, and Roberto in this mid-20s. There was clearly much to be learned from each other. As Roberto got us a car via the DiDi app and spoke fluent Chinese to the driver, the ambassador started on his lessons.

Ambassador Eric Bost and Roberto Contreras IV

We had just finished our meeting with the US Ambassador to China. At the end of the meeting, the ambassador had greatly praised his assistant in front of both of them, telling him that he had been to over 100 embassies and that she was one of the best employees he had met. In the car, he told Roberto to always be kind to everyone you meet and pay special attention to the administrative staff. So many people look them over and don’t pay attention to them, but they wield quite a bit of power in the agency. At our previous meeting, he specifically sought her out and thanked her for setting up our meeting. He said that he knew whenever he contacted her she would make sure to assist him. Lesson #1: Be kind to everyone no matter what their position. Praise people in front of their bosses when you get the chance.

Then he told us a story that had happened when he was 19. He was eating with his friends in a restaurant and this stunningly beautiful girl walked in and sat a few tables away. He and his friends all wanted to go up and talk to her, but none of them was brave enough. He struggled back and forth if he should get up and say hi to her. Eventually she left and he never saw her again. He decided at that moment the next lesson. Lesson #2: Make up your mind to do something or not. Have no regrets for actions not taken. 

Roberto recently had his first child. You guessed it, little Roberto Contreras V. This led us to have a discussion about parenting. The ambassador told us a story about his father. He said, “You know, my father treated all of us differently. He knew who we were and gave us feedback appropriately. My dad never told me what to do. He always asked me, ‘What do you think you should do?’ With my brother, he was much more direct. He told him exactly what to do.” This holds in parenting as well as leadership. Lesson #3: Know the people you supervise and reward them appropriately. Treat everyone fairly, not equally.

In the final lesson for this trip, the ambassador told Roberto a story about a girl that he dated in college. She was beautiful and he took her out on a date. He found out quickly on the date that she was rather boring and didn’t take her out again. A few years later, he ran into her again. Being rather striking, he decided to take her out again, with the same result. He said, “That’s it; I’m never taking her out again.” But he ran into her again, several years after college, and he was again struck by her beauty and decided to take her out one more time. The third time was not a charm. Nothing had changed in the intervening years, and he shouldn’t have expected it to.

Lesson #4. Personality doesn’t change often. Don’t expect it to.

What do these lessons teach us about public health leadership? I have often said that my PhD in psychology is the most valuable thing to have as a dean. So much of leadership is working with people. All of the ambassador’s lessons are about people. As I talk to employers looking to hire my students, I continually hear that they are looking for “soft skills.” They know that our students will be technically proficient, but will they be able to work in culturally diverse, team environments? Can they lead and motivate other people? These lessons are a good starting point.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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