Sunday evening, April 27, marks the start of Yom haShoa – Holocaust Remembrance Day. Here is my annual re-post in memory of the victims and in honor of the survivors. Leadership begins with respect for all people and a desire to make the world a better place. Never forget.
Leadership Lessons from Holocaust Survivors
A leader’s job is to create meaning and purpose for those around him or her. In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl speaks eloquently about the power of such meaning and purpose in a person’s life. This book should be required reading for all leaders.
Recently, I was fortunate to hear from a wonderful woman, Cipora Katz. Cipora is a Holocaust survivor. She is a woman of tiny stature. Yet, when she speaks, her spirit fills the room. Cipora was the fifth Survivor that I’ve had the opportunity to hear speak.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear a Survivor speak, I recommend doing so (and doing so quickly as unfortunately, their numbers are thinning). These are incredible people who in the course of thirty minutes will provide a lifetime of lessons. Reading their stories or seeing snippets of a video doesn’t capture what makes these people so special. Watching them in person allows you to see the spark in their eye, hear the conviction in their voice, and feel the burning desire to live that resides in their hearts.
Their stories discuss horrors that many of us couldn’t even imagine yet alone endure. However, when reflecting on their lives Survivors use words like “fortunate”, or “lucky”. This must be what Viktor Frankl meant in “Man’s Search For Meaning” when he said that “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.” Each of these survivors had a burning, insatiable desire to live. They understood that their life had purpose even if, at the time, they didn’t know what that purpose might be.
There are five lessons that I took from their stories. Each provides a way to summon the spark within us even when there is darkness around us:
Frame your world your way
The first lesson I learned is that leadership is about how we frame issues. We cannot always control the things that happen to us. However, we can control how we frame and react to them. We can view them as tragedies that disable us or as challenges to which we must step up. Imagine a ten year old boy being told by his mother that he must run away and fend for himself in order to survive. Now imagine him actually doing it. Survivors overcome.
Create your own luck
The second lesson is to create opportunities for yourself. Every survivor’s story seems to contain a combination of determination and luck. There is an old adage, “I believe in luck. The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Survivors got “lucky” partly because they capitalized on things that others missed, ignored, or didn’t have the courage to try. In one story, a complete stranger approached a mother and child telling them to run after him when he gave them a signal. Perhaps a twist of fate placed that opportunity before them. But, it was their internal spark that moved them to act on that opportunity when others might have been too afraid of the risk. Survivors constantly sought a way past the next hurdle and didn’t let an opportunity slip by.
Live with purpose
Third, create a purpose for yourself and others – Even today you can tell that each survivor lives life with purpose and meaning. For some that purpose has changed since their experience in the Holocaust. But, it is unmistakable. In the past few years the business world has become filled with advice and articles on “employee engagement”. Yet, after meeting these survivors, I realize that we don’t really understand what engagement is anymore. We consider a person who is willing to do a good day’s work for a fair day’s pay as engaged. Go hear a survivor speak. Listen to what they say and how they say it. Watch them. Analyze how they view (or viewed) the world. You will leave with a new definition and appreciation of engagement.
Hold fast to what matters, compromise on the rest
The fourth lesson is about mental agility. Survivors knew which of their expectations to compromise on and which to hold fast. This allowed them to recalibrate what was “normal” in a world that lost all sense of what was right. By reframing their expectations they were able to create small successes on a daily basis which gave them the extra energy needed to look ahead to the next day. Just as today, people who held too tightly to standard definitions had difficulty adapting. But the Survivors didn’t compromise on all of their expectations. They maintained a clear line on the meaning of humanity, life, and purpose. Lowering some expectations allowed them to adapt and achieve success, while maintaining the important ones drove their sense of purpose and longevity.
Be self-reliant while supporting your community
Finally, the Survivors understood their role in a broader community but also relied first and foremost on themselves. They created their own opportunities. They didn’t wait for a handout. Yet, many of the most touching stories were of people who, despite their own starvation, broke the scrap of bread that they found into as many pieces as possible so that all could share. This reliance on self integrated with contribution to community provided these people with strength, even when they didn’t personally have any left.
Not surprisingly, many of the Survivors that I met and heard from achieved great personal or professional success after the Holocaust. It wasn’t easy. Many restarted their lives with absolutely nothing. Their will and passion for life combined with the ingenuity, determination, and ability to overcome adversity must have made navigating the “regular” world somewhat trivial.
No workshop or book will ever provide better lessons than what I learned from listening to these extraordinary people. Of course, I realize that it wasn’t knowledge or skill that enabled these people to do what they did. It took a spark deep inside of each of them. You can’t build or buy that spark. But, if you are lucky, perhaps you can capture some of the energy from those who have it