Leadership Development in Central/Eastern Europe: Before, During and After Communism 

In the last issue, John explained how he got to Poland and why it is so hard for him to leave  (there is too much good work). In this issue, he explores what he has learned about leadership during his five years in Central/Eastern Europe and why people here may respond to leaders the way they do. – The Editor 

You would think that leadership is basically leadership, regardless of where an enterprise is located. I mean, things needs to get done everywhere on the planet. So what might be different about leadership in Central/Eastern Europe? And why? 

The answer, of course, is that people are different, depending on the time and circumstances where they have been brought up, where they learned who they should be, and how they need to behave to make it in the world. On Day 1 of our Leadership Development Intensive (LDI) we introduce Ram Dass’ concept of ‘Somebody Training’, which is about the ‘school’ we were all enrolled in when we were born. Our ‘faculty’ were all the grown-ups around us at that time, who showed us by words and actions the kind of Somebody we needed to become.

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It’s easy to see that how the way our Faculty Members were brought up themselves has a lot to do with how they trained us ‘new ones’. In America, people brought up during The Great Depression of the late 1920’s have a certain attitude about things like scarcity and safety, while those brought up in, say the Silicon Valley during the dizzying excitement of the computer/internet ‘bubble’ will have a very different attitude about things like risk and reward. 

With that bit of common sense in mind, let’s take a quick look at what happened in Eastern Bloc countries after World War II.

Re-Drawing the Map of Europe

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On February 4-11, 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin came together for a conference at Yalta to decide the shape and fate of Central and Eastern Europe. In what many call a ‘sell-out’, Roosevelt gave in to Stalin’s insistence that Russia be given de facto control over the countries falling inside what he considered a ‘safety zone’, including Poland, Hungary, The Baltics, Ukraine, The Czech Republic, Albania, Yugoslavia and the Eastern 1/3 of Germany. Churchill, mistrusting Stalin’s intentions, insisted on getting Russia’s leader to promise to allow democratic elections in Poland, a promise which was not kept.

The Wall

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What came next for citizens living in CEE was the communist experiment, surrounded by a wall, where, as my friends over here put it: ‘Everybody supposedly owned everything, but nobody really had anything’.

Scarcity. One Polish colleague told about standing in a queue over a block long as a young boy for 6-8 hours each week, waiting to buy bread and milk, only to be told before he got to the store that there wasn’t any.  

Trust was also an issue: ‘We had to be careful who we talked to, or even made eye contact with, because we never knew who was working for the secret police.’ As a result, people tended to trust their family and a few close friends. Everyone else was treated with what I would all ‘careful courtesy’.  

Mistakes could be costly. ‘Don’t screw up!’ was the mantra for people at work.  ‘Wait to be told what to do; that way it’s not your fault when something goes wrong.’ 

Mission was often non-existent. ‘The important thing is to have a job, regardless of whether or not that job fits your abilities or interest. What you want is not important.’ As another Polish saying goes, ‘It doesn’t matter if you are standing up or lying down, your job and your 2.000zl a month is yours.’ 

Authority was something imposed from above and was not really respected or valued, and people developed an automatic suspicion of leaders.

‘The Wall’ Comes Down

In 1970, disgusted with another drastic hike in food prices, Polish dock workers  from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk marched on Party Headquarters, creating a disturbance heard around the world. Not wanting to be seen as weak, the Soviet government cracked down, which only strengthened the Poles’ deep yearning for freedom. In 1980, this movement formally became a trade union, taking the name Solidarnosc (‘Solidarity’). In the Fall of 1989, with the weakening of the Soviet Union’s political hold on its Western entities, and a surging tide of Polish nationalism, Solidarnosc exploded into a series of nationalistic uprisings all across Central/Eastern Europe (CEE). Within months, Poland—and the rest of CEE—was free from foreign domination for the first time since Hitler’s blitzkrieg of September of 1939.

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Letting Your Voice Be Heard?

Imagine being suddenly told that you are free after 45 years of having much of your life determined by the government. How long would it take for you to discover what your parents and grandparents fought for—or only dreamed of having? 

The very first time I gave a presentation in Poland six years ago—to a company’s 400 Sales Managers from across CEE—like I usually do, I stopped 5-10 minutes into the talk, and invited people to speak with someone nearby about what I had been saying. What they liked, didn’t like, what surprised or excited them. After a few minutes, I tinked a glass and asked them to share with me—and the group—what they had been saying with their partner. Silence. . . I thought it might be a time lag with the translation, so I invited them again. Silence. . . So, like a good consultant (‘When in doubt, gather data’) I said, ‘This has never happened to me before. What’s going on? Why is no one responding?’ 

At least a full minute went by before a woman on the front row called me over and whispered—in English, fortunately: ‘Janek, we are not use to having our opinion asked for’. I thought that might be a reflection of the company’s culture, but then a man on the other side of the aisle called me over and whispered, ‘In the old days (code for ‘under communism’), there was no upside to speaking out in a group of this size—only risk.’ Their responses stunned me. The enormity of what was happening in response to my ‘simple’ request to share their thoughts dawned on me, and I was actually speechless for a moment or two.

‘OK’, I said. ‘I’d like you to imagine that in here, with me, for this next hour, you are safe and that I am VERY interested in anything you have to say.’ Slowly, very slowly, people began to speak out, and by the end of my talk it was as if a dam had burst, as more and more people raised their hands—and their voices—to be heard. What a lesson! For me, not for them. Well, maybe for them, too. But for me I realized: a) how many things I/we in the West take for granted, and b) how ready these people were for what my work was about: ‘Unleashing the human spirit at work’.

Next issue will explore what leadership looks like when concerns about scarcity, mistrust, mistakes and lack of ‘possibility’ are present. 

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