fbpx

9 Leadership Lessons From My Immigrant Dad

My dad has always been a bit eccentric.

  • He was the dad running down the sidelines of my youth soccer games yelling “kick the ball!” [I had people reminding me of this for years afterward.]
  • He was the dad who processed all his thoughts externally. [This made pre-meal prayers excruciating as a kid.]
  • He never met somebody he didn’t know. [As evidenced by him calling everyone chief, amigo, or paesano.]
  • He talked everyone’s ear off and never let them get a word in edgewise. [Still true today 😜]

But for all his quirkiness, he taught me a lot about leadership (even if he didn’t exactly call them leadership lessons). He helped me develop as a person. I am deeply grateful for him, his experience, and his lessons. Even though I didn’t appreciate them as a teenager (we butted heads big time), I can look back on them now and understand why he took the time:

These ideas really are THAT important!

His life is a model for leadership. He learned many lessons that we can extrapolate into our own journeys – personally and professionally.

Now it is my joy and honor to pass them along to you as part of LDRBRND. Here is the TLDR list:

  • Overcoming adversity.
  • Embracing our path.
  • Recognizing our significance.
  • Stepping out in courage.
  • Striving for better.
  • Leveraging our talents.
  • Engaging in hard work.
  • Having faith and optimism.
  • Inspiring the next generation.
9 Leadership Lessons From My Immigrant Dad For Father's Day 2020
Me and dad looking snazzy at my wedding June 2008

Overcoming adversity.

Don't let your current situation dictate your future self.

My dad was born in 1945. His family lived in Bulgaria and owned a farm along the Danube River in a small village called Koshava. His family wasn’t rich, but they had a farm large enough to sustain their family. Then the communists came. They stripped the farm away from my dad’s family.

The communists told his family to work the farm. The majority of the food went to the Communist Party. His family could only keep a small fraction of the food for themselves. The property and all it produced belonged to the state. My dad’s family had no recourse. The threat of violence was real. This situation forced my dad and his family into a life of poverty. They all worked hard to farm the land, yet they didn’t reap the benefits.

My father was an only child. His mother died during childbirth. His father and stepmother were harsh. There was physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. There was deep bitterness, depression, and hopelessness in the household. Yet my dad dared to dream and to believe that there was something bigger and better out there for him.

That belief and worldview propelled him forward despite his humble beginnings and the pain and loss he experienced. His refusal to accept that paradigm was the first step in a long journey of genuine grit. He was determined and motivated NOT to let that be his ultimate story.

We will face adversity – both unwarranted and unexpected – in our lives. But we as LDRBRNDs can’t stay there. We can’t wallow in that misery. We have to make a decision and move forward. Our work is too important to let it be stopped before it even begins.

Embracing our path.

No one can tell you what your tale should be. You have to discover and experience it for yourself.

My dad was a kid who got into a lot of trouble. He had many of his own misadventures. Even though he had chores on the farm (milking goats, feeding chickens, etc) and school to go to, he managed to find time for all kinds of tomfoolery. He got into fights, cut school, wandered around the countryside, and nearly drowned in the Danube River one time.

He was his own person. Not a bad kid, just restless and curious. He was trying to find his own path. As opposed to the path laid out for him by his parents and the state. He was industrious, entrepreneurial, a risk taker, and an adventure seeker. He was (and is) intelligent. But intelligence constrained and unchallenged leads to boredom.

So he was constantly searching for things to satiate his curiosity and his natural intellect. That can be hard to do as a kid. More so as a kid with no one to guide him through this process. But he persisted down that path. Even though he had opposition all around him (parents, teachers, neighbors, friends).

He had an inkling that the road less travelled was the road for him. The same goes for anyone who decides to pursue this path of a LDRBRND. It’s a path that is wholly ours. There are no mile markers. We will have to cut our way through and be trailblazers. It may even put us into confrontation with people we love. Can we handle the challenge?

Recognizing our significance.

Our purpose isn’t the mere accumulation of money and things. We don't find deep fulfillment unless we search for it intently. It’s not a passive process. We must be proactive in seeking our higher calling.

The communists drafted my dad into compulsory military service. At the age of 18, he left home, never to return again. At the time, he had no love lost for that idea. His childhood wasn’t great. But he wasn’t thrilled about the prospects of fighting a battle on behalf of the communists. He didn’t want to die for a cause he didn’t believe in.

Somewhere in his mind – despite all the indoctrination – he knew that being a cog in the commmunist party was not his ultimate destiny. He recognized the evil inherent in the ways of the communists. He wanted something different and better. He wanted a life of more.

More:

  • Freedom
  • Hope
  • Light
  • Love
  • Peace
  • Control
  • Possibility
  • Opportunity
  • Joy
  • Family
  • Kindness
  • Respect

And he would not be denied the chance to live a life of more. It was worth any risk – even to the point of risking his own life. His search for deeper purpose compelled him. The sacrifice was worth the reward.

We all won’t face this sort of life or death scenario as LDRBRNDs. But we can expect that there will be tradeoffs. Some of them are bigger than others. But we realize that the pursuit of genuine purpose has a real cost. It must be paid.

Stepping out in courage.

Taking action despite fear and discouragement. Moving forward into a life of great unknown and uncertainty. We will not have a clear path at all times.

My dad was a soldier in the Bulgarian army serving along the border with Greece. He was now 20. He found an opportunity and exploited it. One night he saw an opening and he ran for it! He threw down his weapon and made his way to a nearby Greek village. He ran for miles. Miraculously he wasn’t discovered and shot as a deserter. He somehow communicated his desire for political asylum to the Greek government.

In this sequence of events, my dad had no clue how things would turn out. He had a plan. He identified the right time to act. But then he had to be brave and take those scary first steps. He had to be willing to abandon that life without looking back. That is a hard choice. Even if it is a choice between communism and liberty. He had to overcome the fear of loss and potential loss.

He had to have a powerful idea in front of him. A vision or a dream of a better life. Something so mighty and valuable that the decision to cross that border seemed like a no brainer. He was a brave man, but bravery works in conjunction with fear. There is no courage in acting when there is no potential for loss.

  • He knew the odds.
  • He knew what he was leaving behind.
  • He also knew that the future was wide open.

That can be a scary proposition too. But he acknowledged that feeling. He made it his friend. He danced with the ambiguity. This is not normal for us as human beings. But it is just that type of mentality that prepares us to be leaders.

Striving for better.

What are you yearning for? There should be something internally that motivates us. External motivation is temporary. But the intrinsic motivation lasts for a lifetime and creates lasting achievement and legacy.

Have a dream and pursue it. My dad sure did. As a child, he heard about this wonderful place called America. The shining city on a hill spread its light into the most remote areas of a communist country. America was the place where people enjoyed freedom of expression and the freedom to pursue their dreams. This provided a stark contrast to the ideology of the communists.

In America, people like Arnold Schwarzenegger rose from poverty to become rich and famous.

In America, food wasn’t limited. People even enjoyed Hershey’s candy bars whenever they wanted. In Bulgaria, that plain milk chocolate bar with the iconic rectangles was a rare and expensive delicacy.

In America, people could work hard and earn a living that provided more than enough for themselves and their families. They weren’t shackled to a certain status. They could improve their lot in life.

This was a huge motivator for my dad. He had never seen this in real life. He had only heard rumors of it. The ability to choose his own adventure and to be in control of where he wanted to take his life came from a place deep within. He knew his life could be better and he would do whatever it took to achieve that goal.

As LDRBRNDs, we need to be tapping into our own profound desires. What is our internal motivation? Where does it come from? What is it dependent on? We need to do that inner work to bring that outer fire to our vision, dreams, and ambitions.

Leveraging our talents.

From an early age, we show inclinations and potential toward something. As adults, we forget about those things or had them stamped out of us.

Leadership involves fully embracing those gifts and developing them to the maximum potential. That way, those gifts can be leveraged for the good of others – to love and serve them. Not doing so, creates pain and resentment within us and is a disservice to those who need our gifts the most.

So what gifts did my dad have and how did he pass them on? My dad is a really smart guy. He has always had a natural understanding of math and especially money. Combine that with his high sense of discipline and responsibility and it becomes a powerful life (and business) plan.

  • Work hard (give it your best effort)
  • Earn pay (never steal)
  • Live humbly (within your means)
  • Save Money (Have margin to weather the financial storms)
  • Give generously (to those in need)

I didn’t always follow this basic plan. I didn’t appreciate my dad’s stingy ways when I was a kid [sorry dad!]. But in more recent years I have certainly seen and felt the wisdom of this. Money is simply a tool. It is neither good nor evil. But an extension of what is already in our hearts, minds, and souls.

These days I also see that this is not the way most people approach money. Dad had to teach this to me (and I appreciate the fact that he did). It’s not natural for most people to have this understanding of money. That was part of Dad’s gifts. I am certain it had to do with his upbringing and the poverty he experienced.

Now because of what he taught me (the gift he leveraged), I can better help more people. LDRBRNDs intentionally use and develop their expertise to help others. Their gifts aren’t simply for themselves, their self-aggrandizement, or their elevation of status.

Engaging in hard work.

Not being afraid of it or resisting it. But running toward it. This applies to the physical, emotional, and intellectual realms. It’s through the hard work that we build resilience and wisdom.

My dad has never been afraid of hard work. It started as a kid on a farm and it never left him. That farmer toughness and mentality combined with the immigrant attitude makes for a force to be reckoned with. He held a number of physically demanding jobs when he came to the US. Whether it was in manufacturing or in food processing – he was accustomed to the demands of long hours on his feet.

But some of the hardest work for him came in the realm of the mind. First, he had to learn the English language. If you were born in America and grew up speaking English you may not realize how complex it is to learn. There are rules of grammar, exceptions to those rules, and exceptions to the exceptions. English stands alone in a category of its own when it comes to complexity.

Then he decided to pursue higher learning. He didn’t exactly graduate from high school in Bulgaria. So he went through the process of getting a GED before going to college. He went to a local college on nights and weekends. He took as many courses as he could afford. He did the work into the late hours of the night (after he had already worked long hours at his day job).

It was a slow process. He took 7 or 8 years to finish but he did earn his BS in Sociology. Oh and did I mention he had a family at the time? I was a baby, so I don’t remember those days. But my dad spoke of them often and how difficult (but worthwhile) it was. [I can’t even fathom doing this with a family! It took a lot out of me to pursue higher education without kids!]

But the most challenging (and rewarding) work was raising me and my siblings. We surely didn’t make it easy on him. It’s hard work being a parent. I know I didn’t (or couldn’t) appreciate it at the time.

It’s emotional labor. (But the hard times were worth it)

It’s looking past the current situation to see the possibilities.
It’s seeing the value of hard work – little bits and pieces – that payoff in the long run.

That is exactly the type of mindset needed for LDRBRNDs. It’s not easy to think this way. It’s more art than science. But it’s necessary.

Having faith and optimism.

What’s your spiritual life like? It plays a big part in how you create your future.

My dad has always been a spiritual person. Even as an impoverished farmboy in Bulgaria, he believed there was something bigger out there. He believed that his destiny was not set in stone. He didn’t have to live the life the communists assigned to him. It was that core belief that helped him to press on in the face of constant opposition.

He came to America and lost his way for a bit. He found faith, purpose, hope, and joy. He passed on that Christian faith to me and my siblings. Regardless of your exact faith (or lack thereof), It’s hard to have hope for the future if there isn’t a belief in something or someone bigger than ourselves.

It’s our spiritual lives that power and direction to the engine of our dreams. We all need that fire. We all need something to cling to when things are at their lowest. We’ve all been there. We need something to sustain us through the long, hard road of achieving our visions. We need others around us to lift us up (and we can do the same for them).

My dad had (and still does) an eye towards the future. Not ignoring the past or present, but creating a beautiful picture of the future one tiny dot at a time. We can all learn from his story. We can find comfort and support as we struggle with a valiant effort to write the stories of our own lives. Remarkable stories that we as LDRBRNDs can leave behind for our families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Inspiring the next generation.

We have a responsibility to those who come after us. We want to leave this world better than we found it and encourage others to greater heights of success.

My dad’s story is wondrous. Truly. He was a nobody who risked it all to come to America to find his path and create an amazing life of his own. I deeply admire what he did. I have no clue whether I would have taken the risks he did if I was in his situation.

Here’s maybe the most important thing he did though:

He shared the story with me.

Over and over again. Sometimes I couldn’t stand it as a kid. I thought he did it to be annoying or for his own ego. Instead he was teaching me and my siblings the power of a story to help others. That help doesn’t end when the person passes on either. I am fortunate to still have my dad around. He will be 76 this year. I hope he still has many years ahead of him. But if he should die, I know I will remember his stories and his lessons for the rest of my life.

Then I have the privilege and the responsibility to share them with others. My family and especially my kids. But also my friends, neighbors, relatives, colleagues, students and more. My hope is that these lessons will inspire and encourage others as they have done so for me.

A LDRBRND brings hope, inspiration, and optimism to those that come after. That is the aim of my life.

Parting thoughts

I wanted to encourage and inspire other LDRBRNDs with this piece for Father’s Day 2020. I also wanted to honor my dad while he is living. I think it a shame to wait for our loved ones to pass before we truly appreciate what they have done for us. So go ahead and thank your dad, granddad, stepdad, foster dad or dad figure. Leverage their life and leadership lessons. Let the wisdom flow through our lives and create real impact in those around us.

So let’s look to be a LDRBRND by:
  • Overcoming adversity.
  • Embracing our path.
  • Recognizing our significance.
  • Stepping out in courage.
  • Striving for better.
  • Leveraging our talents.
  • Engaging in hard work.
  • Having faith and optimism.
  • Inspiring the next generation.
Servant Leadership

Do you want to learn about how you can be a servant leader?

Are you wanting to learn what it takes to lead in today’s day and age? Do you want to gain respect from your employees and team by being a strong leader they look up to? A lot has changed in the last few years with a new generation entering the workforce. Use this guide to learn how to lead properly with servant leadership.

Blog Categories

Subscribe to blog updates!