Rufus Gifford is a civic leader, public speaker, and an advocate for Democratic causes.
A former aide to President Barack Obama, from 2013 to 2017, he served as the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, where he led efforts to address the effects of climate change, build international coalitions, and invest in clean energy. Rufus also helped modernize the transatlantic relationship through people-to-people diplomacy, youth engagement, and a never-before-seen public diplomacy strategy, which included the award-winning documentary series “I Am the Ambassador.” He was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog by Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark for his meritorious service.
In January 2019, Rufus joined Out Leadership as a Senior Advisor.
Can you tell us about how you realized that you were gay and how you came out?
I’d known that I was attracted to men since my early teens, but it was very, very difficult for me to identify as gay, because I didn’t see myself depicted in media at the time, and I had no gay role models. My parents didn’t have any gay friends. And I felt very isolated.
When I was a freshman at Brown, it came to a head in a beautiful way. I had been falling deep into a depression, and one night my freshman roommate confronted me and said, “I think I know what you’re struggling with.” And just like a lot of closeted people would, I said, “You couldn’t possibly understand what I’m going through. I’m the only person who feels this way.”
And he said, “No. The reason why I think I know what you’re going through is because I feel the exact same way.” It was an amazing moment.
How has being openly LBGT+ at work influenced your leadership approach and style?
Being openly LBGT+ has certainly given me a perspective on diversity that as a white guy I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I’m in rooms full of other white guys often, and I’m better able to see the importance of bringing different perspectives into those homogeneous rooms. We need more women at the table, we need more people of color at the table, we need more LGBT+ people. Because if your team brings different life experiences you’re going to think more creatively.
And I think I have a different sense of how workplace discrimination works. I understand the issues in a more profound way. I think it makes you realize that you have to work just a tiny little bit harder, that there will be situations you’ll feel alienated from, isolated by. And I’ve always felt like I wanted to put in that extra hour, proofread the document a couple more times, because I always felt like I had a little bit more something to prove.
Who are your role models?
Even if it’s trite to say it, my mom and my dad are my first and most important role models. My dad was a very, very successful businessman, truly American in every sense of the word. He strived for excellence, didn’t take no for an answer, and always proceeded with integrity and decency and giving back to community.
And then you couple that with my mom’s pure human decency, respect for others, and her concept of giving back. Throughout my life, both professionally and otherwise, I’ve tried take the lessons I’ve learned from each of them in order to be a whole and decent human being.
And then, I know this sounds a little crazy, but I’m lucky enough to be able to say that Barack Obama has been a mentor to me. I met him in January 2007 and worked for him until January 2017. So, the entirety of his first campaign and all eight years of his presidency.
He gave me some advice right before I went overseas to be an ambassador. I was a young political staffer, and I really didn’t know the first thing about diplomacy. And I was struggling with how I was going to do that job.
He told me, “Go be you.” Which I think is the best advice that you can give to anybody, and when it comes from the President of the United States, it’s even better.
It led me to understand that while I was representing my country as ambassador, I had a responsibility, to a certain extent, to speak to my own experience, including by speaking about my husband, or my partner at that time, and my identity as a gay man. That who you are as a human being is always connected to the work that you are doing.
What is an important thing that you have learned from somebody who worked for you?
When I was ambassador, I had senior level intelligence folks who reported up to me, senior economists who were working for me. I didn’t know much about those areas of expertise beyond what the training they give to ambassadors.
And when I arrived in Copenhagen, the number two person there gave me some advice. They said, “Don’t try to fix something that’s not broken. Insert yourself when it’s appropriate, but don’t try to reinvent the wheel. No one expects you to be an expert at everything, but people do expect you to work hard and be an advocate for the work that they are doing. Don’t always try to be the smartest person in the room.”
And I really took that to heart. Very often, in professional settings, people who are trying to make a name for themselves will push too hard, they will micromanage, they will pretend that they are knowing what they are talking about even if they don’t.
And I think leadership, in so many ways, is the exact opposite of that. Leadership is about empowering others. Leadership is not about making you look good. If the people around you look good, you’ll reflect their excellence. And I think that’s critically important.
On this topic, she’s not a person who worked for me, but when I’m thinking about my philosophy as a manager and as a leader, I try to live the Maya Angelou quote: “People never remember what you say, they never remember what you do, they remember how you make them feel.”
And I try to remember that. It’s about decency, it’s about openness, it’s about trying to bring out the best in others.
If you could tell someone who’s graduating from college in 2019 one thing that you’ve learned, what would it be?
When I was 19, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my life. And I can tell you, my life took a number of unpredictable twists and turns. You learn so much more from your failures than you do from your successes. And as gut-wrenching as failure can be, people define themselves by how they bounce back from failure, and not by the successes that they’ve had.
So, I would say, “Follow your heart. Don’t be unrealistic. And do what inspires you.”
Can you talk about a time in your career when a sponsor helped you take your next step?
I worked in the entertainment industry for a number of years after college, and I was uninspired by the work that I was doing. I had to make a change, and like so many young people in their mid-20s, I applied to business school.
And I didn’t get in. And that felt like rock bottom. I’d had a career I didn’t like, and I’d done a lot of stuff that I didn’t feel had amounted to much. And my attempt to hit the reset button didn’t work.
And a very good friend of mine encouraged me to quit my job. She told me “Do something crazy. Do something you’re passionate about.”
It was 2004, and this person knew that I cared very much about politics. And she said, “You should go volunteer full-time on the presidential campaign.” And that’s what I did. She helped me join up with Kerry’s campaign, as an unpaid volunteer. I took a huge financial hit, but I was finally doing something that I was actually passionate about.
And the friend who gave me that nudge – it was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. Because she led me to the moment when I finally learned how to balance my head and my heart, and finally started doing something I was good at – being a political fundraiser. And to a certain extent, I was good at because I believed in it in a way that I had never believed in my professional work before.
What is your favorite interview question to ask?
I like to ask questions that help me understand how a person feels about teamwork. I’ll ask a question like, “How do you define success?” And then I’ll listen to see if the person is defining success for them as an individual, or for the organization.
Very often, especially with Americans, there’s a sense that self-promotion is the most important thing, but the ability of a team to work together to create success is so much more important to me.
Who would you identify as an LBGT+ hero of yours?
While it’s hard to choose just two from so many pioneers who paved the way for me to be so open, both Congressman Barney Frank and Ellen Degeneres were real trailblazers. It’s hard to be the first, of anything, and Barney and Ellen changed hearts and minds by doing what they are best at while also being open about who they are.
When you look around the world, what’s the most tantalizing leadership opportunity you see?
Well, definitely President of the United States. We’ve seen great leaders in that role, people who have literally changed the world with their words or their mere presence. And we have such a void in political leadership right now in that role. And to turn that around somehow is just such an amazing opportunity.
Yeah. What’s your personal motto?
“Work Your Butt Off and Be Nice to People”.
Can you share some of your thoughts about join Out Leadership and what you are looking forward to doing with this organization?
I’ve been friends with Todd, and I’ve worked with Out Leadership over the years, both as ambassador and as a private citizen. I’ve always been inspired by the impact its small but mighty staff makes.
Out Leadership is uniquely situated to help companies make the world a better place. We can make the corporate world safe and welcoming for all LGBT+ people – and harness the energy of the private sector to promote equality on a global basis.
These are things that I know Out Leadership has done historically, and I want to do what I can to advance that mission to the best of my ability.
If you were planning a dinner party and you could invite any five people from history, who would they be?
Jesus, Thomas Jefferson, Queen Victoria, Jackie Kennedy, and Yoda.
What would the opening song in a movie about your life be?
“This Is Me,” from the Greatest Showman.
And what is a song that you associate with coming out?
“Freedom! 90” by George Michael. I’d argue it’s still probably the best coming out song. But it was certainly important to my process.
What are six things that you could never live without?
Okay. Yeah, so, my husband. My dogs. McDonald’s french fries. Cheeseburgers on the grill in the summer. Rosé.
These are all very hedonistic… The last one would be truth.
Where do you like to go on vacation?
Copenhagen, Denmark. It’s like a second home for me now.
And finally, what are three books you would take to a deserted island?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, because it was my favorite book as a kid.
John Adams by David McCullough.
And Becoming a Man by Paul Monette which was one of the first books I read after coming out. It changed my life.