One of my opportunities in college in the early 80’s was to partner up with a young political refugee from the Soviet Union. Sergei [not his real name] was brilliant in math, extremely tough, and utterly naïve about the US. My role was to help him get around when he wasn’t in classes and answer his questions about life in America. He’d been shown Depression-era films showing soup kitchen lines and old cowboy movies and told these were the current horrible conditions in the US. Initially he felt certain that the grocery stores in Cleveland were CIA fabrications because there couldn’t possibly be this much meat and fruit available for ordinary citizens. I noticed that he stole furtive glances around as we walked in the city, concerned that he was being watched. Sergei was a wild mix of confidence and anxiousness.
During one conversation, he shared that he concluded early on that God must exist, and capitalism must be okay. I asked him why. He said that growing up he was told many facts. The only two facts that were repeated over and over and over again were “There is no God” and “Capitalism is evil.” He realized they must be lying about these two issues or else they would not need to repeat them so many times. But he had no way to verify his conclusion.
He also pointed out how soft and entitled my generation was, because we had suffered so little. Even though he was privileged above many because of math skill, he had a hard life. He scoffed when anyone complained about the class workload or hard wooden seats or the hot girls ignoring us. After a few months of living in the US he still believed the Soviets were likely to prevail because they were conditioned to endure and most of us were whiners.
Two leadership lessons:
What “true” things are you believing only because they’re repeated often? Consider your organization, paradigms for how to do the work and measure success, and how you work with others. What additional evidence should you seek out to make sure your worldview is helpful?
Where do you need to toughen-up to become a better leader? What convenience and softness should you forego to take hold of greater potential?