“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” ~ John Quincy Adams
In our “Be a Better L.E.A.D.E.R.” series the foremost trait of becoming a better leader is to lead with love. As a young adult, I thought that being a great communicator was the most important trait of a good leader. But shortly after I found myself in a foreign land, just weeks shy of my eighteenth birthday without speaking a word of English, I learned that love comes first.
How did the most conservative, republican university in the whole of America endorse a young, foreign student from a communist country engulfed by civil war to represent them? How did a poverty stricken, young woman with no religious upbringing and poor English win the hearts of Liberty University’s faculty, staff, and student body in less than 3 years?
When Yugoslavia was being torn apart by civil war, and Serbians were portrayed in the media as savages, I came to the United States in hope of a better future. My parents did not give me much warning before they sent me to join my older brother, already across the Atlantic. I was neither prepared to speak the language nor prepared to understand a new culture and its people. No one asked me if I wanted to come and leave my life, as I knew it, behind.
Having my brother there to greet me helped, but even he would not speak Serbian to me; he assured me that it would be better that way, and that I would learn the language faster. I ended up sharing a room with three roommates, all coming from conservative Baptist upbringings who could recite the whole of the Bible by heart. I, on the other hand, had a very limited exposure to religion.
In 1918 Yugoslavia was founded as the United Kingdom of Serbs, Slavs, and Croats. Shortly after the WWII began, the king was exiled and then the communists took over. Before the turn of the century Yugoslavia was ruled by kings, communists, socialists, and finally democrats.
I grew up in the transitional period from communism to socialism. The breath of the communist era was still lingering over the former Yugoslavia; the country was divided by two major political parties—one fighting to bring communism back, and the other fighting for democracy. The western states of Slovenia and Croatia were pulling toward, respectively, independence and democracy—and Serbia, its capital then leaning towards the major communist party, with its president Slobodan Milosevic. He was a gifted speaker, very animated and passionate, always evoking strong emotions. Unfortunately, nationalism was one of them.
The country was not only divided by political parties, but by ethnic and religious upbringing. The majority of Serbs were Orthodox Christians, while Croats practiced Catholicism and Bosnians practiced Islam.
Most of the people from urban areas, like my family, where intellectual status was more valued than money, were atheists. In fact, the kids would laugh at believers and label them stupid.
How I began believing in God is still a mystery to me. My concept of God was simple—an invisible friend, of sorts. To a child who had no friends, this was a very appealing coping mechanism. It wasn’t a particular God, just someone kind with great listening skills, because I had a lot of things to complain about.
For example, not having indoor plumbing and having to go take cold showers in the public pool. Especially in the cold winters. Or, not having my own nice clothes instead of the old hand-me-downs I wore, many of them my dad’s or brother’s... Not having a place to run away to when my parents are yelling and throwing things around... Not having long hair like the other girls because they did not have lice... Sleeping on a small couch with mom... Not having anyone show up to my birthday party... Living in fear of my mom leaving.. Being bullied by kids... Being slapped by teachers for reading too slow or not knowing how to keep the letters the same size... Pretending I was full when my classmates bought food. But most of all, wishing to disappear and hide from the shame I was feeling.
I started finding peace in an empty cathedral nearby. Often before my high school afternoon shift would begin, I would go there just to sit in peace. The beautiful paintings, frescos, mosaics, and icons drew me in. I would sit in one of the side chairs and get lost in thoughts. Making up stories about each saint.
Occasionally, I would pass by a beggar at its entrance, and that was always hard since I had no money myself to give them. Once, an old beggar really touched me, in a way I can’t explain into words. I felt moved to go home and fetch some food for her despite the risk of being late for the classes. All I could find were a couple of tangerines, so I ran back to give them to her. I will never forget her look of gratitude and her blessings. She kept blessing, not just the usual bless you brush off—she was blessing me, my children, and my children’s children. I don’t know why, but I found that very peculiar.
Years later, times got better, and my parents’ salaries got higher and the banks gave them credits. We left our small, moldy studio and moved into a single-bedroom apartment with indoor plumbing. My brother and I, now both in high school, were still sleeping on couches, sharing the same room.
He no longer could stand our dad’s my-way-or-the-highway authoritarian style, and he looked for a student exchange program that sent kids to the USA for his senior year of high school. A year and a half later, when the civil war broke out, my parents told my brother, who was already in the USA, to find a way to stay. If he were to return, he would have been drafted.
Just like my brother’s independence from our dad’s iron-fist rule gave me confidence, so did Slovenia’s independence give confidence to the other states to break away, which as we know did not go smoothly. In fact, it turned into one of the bloodiest civil wars in the history of modern Europe.
My parents understood the severity of the situation and decided to send me away as well. But, they were not the only parents entertaining such thoughts. The lines around the western embassies were miles long. Young men and women wanted to flee the country. The American embassy in particular was so swamped with requests that they started denying almost everyone, including a lot of my friends.
When my parents told me of their plan, I cried and I was mad for not asking me what I wanted. I wanted to stay. I saw no evidence of war. Just a new found freedom.
I finally started dating a boy I patiently waited to ask me out for 4 years. When he finally did, I was a freshman in college. I took pride that I was the youngest in the physics department at 17 years of age and hanging out with older kids... new kids who did not know my background. I also moved to my own room. A freshly “remodeled” attic with its own small bathroom and an entrance. I felt on top of the world!
But, my parents saw a different picture. A country in turmoil where there would be a lot of pain and suffering. Hunger and struggle. So, they decided to test their luck at the American embassy, and I was in tears. My best friend comforted me by saying that their chances of approval were slim to none.
While my mom was at the embassy, I ran to my familiar place of comfort. The empty cathedral. I remember as clear as day what I “said” to God that day. I sat behind a life size icon of Jesus on the cross and through tears prayed “God, I don’t want to go. But, if it’s your will for me to leave my country, let it be for a good reason.”
I returned home to find my mother in tears. I exhaled with such relief. Yes! I’m staying, I thought. But then she rushed to embrace me, with words I will never forget. “You are going to America!”
As many immigrants who left their country and family behind, adjusting to a new life is hard, but adjusting without speaking the language is even harder. I cried myself to sleep almost every night for my first few months in college. I cried for my family, my friends, my country, my life. The lack of communication made it even harder. This was before smart phones and emails.
I lived for the letters from my friends that took at least 2 week to arrive and the weekly phone-calls with my parents. I called them whenever I had enough quarters saved to tell them that I am okay and that they should not worry about me. But often not enough to tell them how I really felt. How I had a hard time accepting my new reality. How I missed them and my friends so much. Certainly not enough quarters to hear all that was going on with them. How they had to move to a smaller apartment in the slums, so that they could rent the other one and send us money for college.
Once I realized that crying got me nowhere and that no one cared about my troubles, and that everyone had enough of their own, I accepted my new reality. I started visiting a basketball court behind my dorm and watched the guys play. One time the ball rolled towards me. I took it and threw it towards the basket as if in a trance, totally unaware of the circumstances. The impulse to aim at the basket was automatic. Something I had done thousands of times before. Something I knew I was good at. The ball went high in the air, flying over half of the court, landing smoothly into the basket. The guys were surprised, but I was more when they invited me to play.
I started playing basketball after classes. Something I often did since my elementary school days. The guys would let me play because I didn’t talk much and I could play ball well. It helped that my country’s reputation preceded me. In 1990, only a few years prior to its break up, Yugoslavia won the World Cup in Argentina. A small country in South East Europe beat both the Soviet Union and American teams! Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, and Toni Kukoc were legends! To this day, there is no foreign country that has produced as many top NBA players per capita than the former Yugoslavian states.
During the summer when the campus looked like a ghost town and all the students were happily home, I had no place to go. I had to work on campus to pay for my schooling. Limited by language, my first jobs were labor intensive. Pulling weeds out of flower beds, gardening, trimming hedges, cutting grass, cleaning carpets, serving food, and finally working behind our bookstore cashier register.
It wasn’t until my second year that I got a math tutoring job. Math, once hard, now came easily to me. Back home, I had to take calculus in high school, but here I tutored college students who had a hard time with basic algebra. They would often wait to see me because I was a patient and understanding tutor who too once struggled in math.
The girls from my hallway chose me to be a prayer leader. Maybe there was something about me looking wise because I would not talk much. And when I did, I had something touching or shocking to share that would make them feel better about themselves. Something that would make them forget about silly petty issues and be grateful for what they had.
So each week, ten girls would gather in my room to listen to wisdom from the Bible, but also to hear my life stories of struggle and triumph. In my third and final year I moved to the senior dorms and became a spiritual life director. This time I was responsible for 10 girls in our dorm apartment. Many nights I stayed up late to console broken hearts, morn family members, listen to stories of sexual abuse and other heart breaking traumas.
When I cooked, I cooked for all. When it was time to wash dishes, I took someone else’s turn. I didn‘t complain or point fingers. I just smiled. I cared for those girls. I loved them as my family. And just like family members, some were easier to love than others, but nonetheless everyone deserved love.
I didn’t care for recognition. My reward was seeing these girls heal, find peace and a safe place. I often struggled communicating clearly, but I never failed to love. So you can imagine my surprise when a friend ran to me with the university’s newspaper in hand frantically opening to the middle. Across the papers there were pictures of 25 senior girls chosen as potential candidates to represent the university. The major requirements were good academic standing (above 3.5 GPA), community service, and leadership skills. I was surprised to see my old freshman pictures among the candidates. Although I felt honored, I didn’t give it much attention. Next to the leadership roles, 6 classes and a full time job was keeping me plenty busy. And to be honest, being the only foreigner among the candidates, I had very little expectation That I would advance further.
You can imagine my shock when I still found my name and picture lingering the next week among the final five candidates once the faculty had had a chance to vote.
Now it was the candidates turn to give speeches in front of the whole student body, faculty, and staff, and have them vote for the future Miss Liberty that would proudly represent the university.
You can imagine my fear when I learned that in just a few days, I had to stand on a stage surrounded by thousands of students, faculty and staff and in 5 minutes tell them why I am the right candidate when I did not even want to be the one. I couldn’t even speak English well. Nor was I the most qualified Christian. Not to mention how terrified I was of public speaking.
For the next few days I nervously wrote and tore my speeches. I could barely sleep from the anxiety I felt. I called my brother who was now in grad school at Florida State University, and cried my eyes out. I told him that I didn’t think I could go through this. Without hesitation, he sat on a bus and for the next 24 hours rode all the way to Virginia to see me.
Relieved and overjoyed to see him I pulled out my final speech and slowly read it to him. After finishing he asked to see the papers. I handed them to him expecting him to make minor corrections. Instead, to my disbelief, I watched him tear them apart! “That was my only copy,” I screamed. And 12 hours from now I would have to deliver it. I will never forget what he said next. “This is not you. You are trying to sound like them.” “But that’s my only copy and I got it even proofread by my friend,” I complained. “Do you know how long it took me just to practice reading it without stuttering and mispronouncing the words. I don’t think I can write anything new and deliver it well before the morning!” I cried at this point. He said. “Little sis, you don’t need to speak perfect English to tell them your story. Just speak from your heart and you will win theirs.“
When I got on that stage, in the middle of the basketball court under the dome of The Vines Center that can host up to 10 thousand students with bright lights in my face, I froze. It did not help to see that the Cancelor and the founder of the university Jerry Falwell was right there in the first row anticipating the final speech.
I closed my eyes for a second. The silence was so loud you could hardly hear anything but my breath in the microphone. I began my speech, in my broken English. I told them my story of struggle, pain, and courage. But most of all, I told them the story of hope and kindness of strangers who accepted me like a family member and gave me a chance so that I could have a better future, and that one day I hope I repay the kindness. There was not a dry eye in the whole center, not even the Cancelor’s. I received a standing ovation.
I might have been the most unorthodox representative in the history of the university. The first and only foreign to represent it to this day. And I might not have been the best representative of the student body, but I was a great ambassador of love, compassion, and hope.
5 WAYS TO LEAD WITH LOVE
In recent years there has been a surge of workshops on how to be a caring leader. But, the truth is, you are either caring or not. You can’t teach someone to care authentically if they don’t already. And they can’t convince others that they do, if their actions speak differently.
Real leaders simply care about their team. They respect each member as an individual and the work that they do. They balance between professionalism and being personable or caring. It is easy to upset that balance, so it is imperative that leaders set boundaries. This will not diminish their respectability or reputation as strong and caring leaders, rather it will bring out the best in their team while teaching them how to set those boundaries themselves while still fostering an environment that is conducive to thriving.
Caring leaders are not really the soft and cuddly type. On the contrary, they exercise tough empathy - a trait that enables the leader to give their team what they need and not what they want. They provide an environment that is conducive to learning, growing, and challenging their team to not only do better, but be better people.
Exercising tough empathy is not always easy, especially in the critical times or when the organization is in survival mode. In such times, it’s more challenging for caring leaders to balance respect for the individual and the task at hand. But, as hard as it is, they must try to balance it and give selflessly to those around them. Rolling up their sleeves too, and lead by example. And sometimes they have to take risks. The uncertainty can make the team apprehensive. However, when caring leaders are open and direct about the new direction with their team, they are more likely to maintain the team’s commitment and trust, and thus make the difficult decision to implement the new vision.
Leaders that exercise tough empathy genuinely care about the work they do, the cause they are pursuing, and the values they are upholding. And when people care deeply about something, they are authentic and more likely to show their true selves. They are not just doing their job or fulfilling a mere role, they are passionate about the people and the work. And leaders that are passionate are likely to inspire their team and maintain their commitment.
1. Be consistent in speaking authentically and calmly. Your words matter. They should be used to inspire, encourage, teach, or inform. When you are calm, collected, and consistent, you are more likely to inspire confidence and trust in others. The best way to exercise patience and calmness is through mindful meditation.
2. Show respect by good listening. Do not assume or bark orders. Before you speak, try to hear the person out and understand where they are coming from. Listening promotes idea sharing, innovation, and shows them that they are valued.
3. Exercise tough empathy, balancing respect for the individual and the work, as well as setting clear boundaries and expectations. When you see someone struggling with a task and feel overwhelmed, offer support. Help them identify what it is that is making them feel stuck. But keeping the communication open and direct, you will instill trust.
4. Often show appreciation not just for the hard work that your team is doing, but for who they are. Doing an excellent job is great, but good leaders encourage and emphasize the individual’s traits, such as integrity, self-control, compassion, self-motivation, tenacity, and loyalty. Acknowledge each team member both privately and publicly.
5. Create culture and environment that is conducive to healing and personal growth.
This means that you must create a safe space for open communication. Having a team that feels too intimidated to share the challenges that affect their work performance will not serve you or the organization well.
In the KHR culture we emphasize respect, compassion, and support. We foster an environment that encourages vulnerability. Instead of criticizing, we train, instruct, help and encourage. We redefine failure by our motto “you have not failed, if you have learned something from your experience”.
One thing I always try to emphasize to women is that they need to stop making decisions based on fear. This is especially true in leadership roles, wether we lead our families or our organizations, the same applies. The important thing to remember is to start leading with love. Just like my brother once taught me. You don’t have to be the most eloquent speaker to be an effective leader. But you need to lead with your heart.