It’s possible that I was one of the last Westerners in the Soviet Union. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend my final semester in the USSR. The Dean of the Business school where I attended University (PLU), was a native Latvian, had done his doctoral work in Latvian economics, and maintained a liaison with the Latvian, albeit de facto, government as an economic advisor. During Perestroika when Mikhail Gorbachev was opening the Soviet Union to economic expansion, Dean King, PhD was able to put together a study abroad program in Latvia.
Not wanting to go somewhere that wasn’t challenging, I applied and was accepted as only a small handful of students to attend Riga Technical University in my final semester, which as it turned out was the final semester for the Soviet Union. The small group of us excitedly flew to traverse the trials and tribulations of life in a collapsing communist economic system, leaving trepidatious and anxious parents behind as talk of coups, violence, and food (mainly vodka leading to violence) shortages loomed.
When we arrived in Riga Latvia, a Port city, I became obsessed with these Naval hats. Cute little tails with gold anchors trailed down the backs of junior officers and they were everywhere! Eventually, I found one for sale. $20.00 hard currency for one Soviet Naval Engineering hat and three very happy Junior Naval officers later, we learned that they had eaten nothing but one boiled potato per day for months. They were thrilled (I know, hard to believe) with their new fortune and had big plans to treat themselves to a luxury meal and most likely some Stolichnaya.
Moscow, Russia USSR, 1991
Beautiful as it was, life in the Soviet Union, even the relatively unscathed Baltic States, was a cold, bleak dreary place…and that is not referring to the weather. It was a place where I faced for the first time, extreme poverty and hunger, racism, cruelty, and an overall general lack of compassion in everyday events. A grown woman dragging a schoolgirl from a bus seat by her hair; people walking around the corpse of a dead man on a snowy Moscow sidewalk, and the ambulance drivers who made a University student with a severely injured foot walk to the ambulance with no assistance, were all seemingly natural occurrences. Each of these events left me in tears as I struggled to understand how people could be so heartless.
Lessons in the present day
At the time, in the day-to-day challenges of life in a Soviet, communist economy one doesn’t think about personal values, especially not at the young age of a university senior. But these experiences had a deep and profound effect on me, which shaped my values both personally and professionally. We know from the years of psychological research that individuals faced with extreme challenges can lose their sense of humanity as self-preservation instincts through fight or flight reactions kick in. We see the exact thing in toxic organizational cultures. Both of these (getting a sense of your own values and overcoming years of abuse) take time. This is why Leadership Development efforts must be considered long-term not short-term strategies.
Spending a career in organizational and leadership development for me has always been about creating both a culture and a leadership foundation of kindness and compassion. There is still so much opportunity for us to help leaders understand the impacts of their words and actions (or in-actions) on their team members. Still so many “leaders” in today’s organizations squash the dreams and goals of team members, use them as their personal errand runners, set up team members for failure, leave others feeling abused, the list goes on and on. Team members who see bad behavior rewarded overtime time not only come to accept this as normal, begin to treat others in the same way, perpetuating the cycle actually increasing dysfunctional behavior. Much like life in the Soviet Union: culture eats strategy.
Our leadership actions have consequences and therefore require a higher degree of ethics. Our leadership actions set the tone for what our team members take home to their families, therefore what their family members take into the community. We can do better within our organizations. By very definition, leadership is all about kindness and compassion.
“An influence based relationships that is active, reciprocal, and non-coercive”
There is room for both in every organization, and in-fact, organizations that do well with the people-production balance faire far better overall. Best of all, kindness costs nothing.
Landing back home at SeaTac airport, late December 1991, I learned that the USSR had officially fallen while I was en-route home. The end of an era it seemed was just the beginning of my work.
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